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Saturday, July 4, 2015

Calvin Coolidge Portraits

Official White House portrait, President Calvin Coolidge,
1931, Charles Sydney Hopkins

Smiling for votes,
October 22, 1924.
The lyrics above are by George M. Cohan. They were first performed on Broadway in 1904 in the musical Little Johnny Jones. We tend to associate the tune with James Cagney, who sang it in the 1942 film, Yankee Doodle Dandy, in which he played Cohan. Quite apart from any association with Cagney or horse racing, the lively chorus could well have been the campaign theme song for President Calvin Coolidge when he ran for reelection in 1924. The words are especially appropriate in that today, July 4th 2015, would have been Coolidge's 143rd birthday. Yes, old "Silent Cal" was actually born on the Fourth of July, in 1872, just four years short of our nation's hundredth birthday.

Although the lyrics might well have fit, the tune to which Cohan fit them (even then, more than a hundred years old), would have been totally out of character for the somber Vermont Yankee. In scouring the photo archives, I found barely a handful in which the man was smiling; and most those were obviously taken during the 1924 campaign for reelection (above, right), for example. Even at that it would seem to be a rather forced joviality. Let's face it, the man was not only "silent" but somber as well. In gathering the meager number (for a president) of painted portraits, absolutely none of them even hint at a smile. Fellow New England Yankee, Charles Sydney Hopkins, in his official White House Portrait of President Calvin Coolidge (top) painted him perhaps the most somber of them all.

President Calvin Coolidge, 1928, Joseph E. Burgess, National Portrait Gallery
President Calvin Coolidge
by an unknown artist.
Virtually every president has two painted portraits, the official White House portrait, and one in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Joseph E. Burgess' painting is a stiff, full-length, standing pose (above), though it's usually cropped to a head and shoulders version (with little or no loss). Although Coolidge was probably the most photographed president up to that time, his two official portraits and two other insignificant works are apparently the only such painted images rendered during his lifetime (he died of heart failure in 1933). The most pleasant of these (right) is by an unknown artist, possibly William McGregor Paxton, who is known to have painted both Grover Cleveland and Calvin Coolidge. The slick, realistic style is similar in some ways to Paxton's. However, it also has the look of a more recent work leading me to believe it was probably painted posthumously from a photo.

President Calvin Coolidge
(artist unknown).
Grace Anna Goodhue
Coolidge with Rob Roy, 1924,
Howard Chandler Christy
The other portrait of Calvin Coolidge (left) by an unknown artist, is by far the most surprising of the lot, still quite unsmiling, but having such a loose, bold, almost Cubist style as to nearly cause the sitter to hint at a smile. I would appreciate it if anyone could provide me with reliable attribution for either of these works. In contrast to these, the official White House portrait of First Lady, Grace Anna Goodhue Coolidge with Rob Roy, by Ohio artist, Howard Chandler Christy (below, right), is exceedingly informal in all respects, from it's surprisingly slender shape to the inclusion of the Coolidge's white collie, Rob Roy. There have been many White House pets, but none have ever found their way into an official portrait. The stylish red sheath dress also suggests that Grace Coolidge was not nearly as somber as her husband (who forbid her to drive a car, talk to the press, or mention politics).

Calvin Coolidge Time Cover,
 01-16-28, Samuel J. Woolf
A recent Calvin Coolidge
caricature, Jason Cottle.
As with all presidents, some of the most insightful portraits are seen in drawings, cartoons, or caricatures. That is no less the case with Coolidge. Though painters seem not to have found him particularly interesting, Coolidge's somber persona and small-government political philosophy have, starting with the Reagan Administration, and more recently in the eyes of conservatives, once more brought him to the forefront of the political world. The Obama poster parody (below) would seem to be in keeping with those developments.

Conservatives moan, "Where's old Silent Cal when we really need him?"


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