Canvas work

Obama’s portraits are the latest in a long series of presidential art

Stewart D. McLaurin

The official White House portraits of President Barack and Michelle Obama were unveiled this month in the East Room, an American cultural tradition that has helped build a visual archive of the presidency spanning more than two centuries. These portraits also played an underappreciated role in building civic bonds between Americans and their elected leaders.

Perhaps the most famous presidential portrait is the first: Gilbert Stuart’s full-length painting of George Washington, purchased by Congress for $800 and later installed in the newly occupied White House.

The artist stuffed the painting with symbolism, including the stars and stripes of the new flag, civilian clothes balanced by a sword of command, and even a rainbow.

A history of portraits

The War of 1812 transformed Washington’s portrait into an icon of the new republic. Hours before the British burned down the White House, First Lady Dolley Madison ordered the portrait to be saved.

A team of White House employees – including a steward, a gardener and a slave named Paul Jennings – broke the frame and removed the canvas. He was loaded onto a wagon and snuck into rural Virginia to await the safe return of elected leaders to the White House.

Before photography, presidential portraits helped early Americans become familiar with their CEO. They were distributed in election campaigns. Abraham Lincoln grasped the political value of presidential images in a modernizing society: when the East Room was opened to see a painting of Lincoln at the first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, 7,000 visitors a day turned up rush to see it.

The production of this painting also illustrates the challenges of a presidential portrait painter. To recreate the scene, artist Francis Carpenter lived in the White House for six months, had cabinet members sit for him, asked Mathew Brady to take photos of the president, and polled Lincoln on his memories of the room that day.

Posing Theodore Roosevelt

Legendary American painter John Singer Sargent had his own challenges painting Theodore Roosevelt. After the President had had enough of the artist following him around looking for a good pose to capture, Roosevelt said, “The trouble with you, Sargent, is you don’t know what you want. ”

“No,” replied the artist. “The problem, Mr. President, is that you don’t know what a pose means.”

Roosevelt hugged a railing post and said, “Isn’t it!” – how Sargent said, “don’t move an inch. You’ve got it now. And that was the portrait he painted for history, of Roosevelt grabbing the banister post.

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Interpretation of Presidents and First Ladies

Artists are not photographers, they are performers. Everything – from the eyes and eyebrows, to the lines used to draw hair, to the purse of the lips and the angle of a cocked elbow – is a window into the heart of the subject. As Lincoln’s portrait painter watched the president during cabinet meetings, he observed how attentive he was and painted his official portrait after his death with Lincoln’s hand under his chin.

This oil on canvas portrait of President John F. Kennedy was painted by Aaron Shikler and is his official White House portrait.

Renowned John F. Kennedy portrait painter Aaron Shikler did not depict Kennedy’s eyes, depicting him instead looking down with his arms folded to show the 35th president as a thinker.

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Portraits of first ladies were not as common as later in the 19th century. The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union commissioned a portrait of Lucy Webb Hayes as a gift after she banned alcohol in the White House.

This oil on canvas portrait of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was painted by Douglas Chandor.

One of my favorites is Grace Coolidge in a bright red dress with a dog by her side that captures her zest and popularity in Washington society. Eleanor Roosevelt’s portrait painter brought out her life and energy by depicting four distinct faces – and four pairs of busy hands.

Represent the Obamas

I was honored to be present at the unveiling of the Obama portraits. Since the Kennedy portraits, the White House Historical Association has funded official portraits of our presidents and first ladies and acquired portraits of others that were missing from the collection. Recent presidents and first ladies typically consider their artists before leaving office and approve portraits before official presentation to the public, the White House collection, and White House history.

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For the artists, the opportunity to interpret American leaders is the work of a lifetime, but which remains confidential until unveiling. “You just have to hang on and work,” said Robert McCurdy, who painted President Obama’s portrait. “Refine, refine, refine, work until you get to that place.” Michelle Obama’s portrait painter, Sharon Sprung, told me that she had to put her painting up on the wall every time someone came into her studio. “I knew it was done when she started breathing,” she said.

Former President Barack Obama views his official White House portrait with former first lady Michelle Obama during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House, Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, in Washington.

The Obamas added to that history in 2009 when they held a ceremony with the descendants of Jennings, the slave who worked in the Madison White House and helped remove George Washington’s iconic painting as the British approached. . Nearly two hundred years later, dozens of Mr. Jennings’ descendants have visited the White House and have been able to inspect the iconic artwork their ancestor helped save.

And before leaving, Jennings’ descendants took a moment to stand for their own family photo – in front of George Washington’s painting.

Stewart D. McLaurin is a member of the USA Today Board of Contributors and president of the White House Historical Association, a private, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization founded by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in 1961 to privately fund the maintenance of museum standard of the White House and to provide publications and programs on the history of the White House.