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Saturday, July 11, 2015

John Quincy Adams Portraits

The president is seen in the boat, his son and a White House steward
are the other two figures (not sure which is which).
Sometimes, as I research some item having to do with art, I come across a detail which, in itself, may be more interesting than my original topic. Today we celebrate the birthday of our sixth President, John Quincy Adams. Did you know that he nearly became the first U.S. President to die in office? Today we'd probably call it the "Tiber Creek Incident." It's interesting as a historic episode in our nation's history as well as an indication of just how much things have changed in the city of Washington, D.C. During the 1820s when John Quincy Adams was President of the United States, the White House sat just a few hundred yards from a brisk little waterway called Tiber Creek. The creek is still there, by the way, but now we call it Constitution Avenue. It's totally underground, part of the D.C. storm sewer system. The painting (above) by an unknown artist, not only depicts the incident, but gives some idea of the picturesque nature of the "president's park" as it was called then.

Long after he left office, and long after he swore off swimming in he Potomac,
John Quincy Adams became the first former president to ever pose
for a photographic portrait, sometime between 1840 and 1848. 
On the morning of June 13, 1825, the President John Quincy Adams decided to go for his usual morning swim in Tiber Creek. With him were his son (then in his early twenties), and the White House steward. Along the banks of the creek they found a deserted rowboat. The president, got into the boat, intending to float down the creek to the Potomac, row across the river, then swim back. However, when someone deserts a rowboat, there's usually a good reason. This one leaked. Well out into the river, it began taking on water. The president, still fully dressed, had to go overboard as the boat sank. His clothes, laden with water, made it difficult to swim. Add to that a sudden summer squall, and the situation changed from humorous to serious. The White House steward, managed to pull the president to shore while the younger Adams (clad only in his union suit) went in search of a carriage. As it turned out, no one drowned, everyone was embarrassed, and the president vowed never again to swim in Tiber Creek.

President John Quincy Adams, official White House portrait, George P.A. Healy
The times were changing. The United States of America was becoming firmly grounded in tradition while science was opening new doors almost daily. President John Quincy Adams, after he left office, was the first former president to ever be photographed (sometime in the 1840s.) The official White House portrait of each president as he left office was becoming a tradition. George P.A. Healy replaced Gilbert Stuart, and others as the artist who painted more president than any other, before or since (a total of eight, altogether). His posthumous portrait of John Quincy Adams (above) from 1858 was not his first. In 1857 Healy painted President Millard Fillmore, which was so well received that he was immediately commissioned to paint five more, from John Quincy Adams to the then sitting President James Buchanan in 1859. His final presidential portrait was probably his most famous, that of President Abraham Lincoln, from 1869.

John Quincy Adams, 1796.
John Singleton Copley
John Quincy Adams, 1818,
Gilbert Stuart
President John Quincy Adams,
1835, Asher B. Durand
Just as today, when the President of the United States is undoubtedly the most photographed person in the whole world. Even before the invention of photography around 1840, President John Quincy became, after Washington, the second most painted President up until that time. Besides Healey's official portrait, I found seven others by other artists painted of this president. Some are, of course, better than others. Some of the artists better known than others. They include such art luminaries as John Singleton Copley (above, left), Gilbert Stuart (above, right), Asher B. Duran (left), George Caleb Bingham (below, right), and Thomas Sully (below, left), as well as lesser-knowns such as John Wesley Jarvis, Edward Merchant, and present-day artist, George Stuart.

John Quincy Adams,
(date, unknown), Thomas Sully
John Quincy Adams, ca. 1850,
George Caleb Bingham
Copley's portrait of Adams is likely the earliest, painted in 1796 when the future president was but twenty-nine years old. None of the portraits appear to have been painted between 1825 and 1829 when John Quincy Adams was in office. In addition, two other exceptional portraits by more minor American portrait artists also add depth to the collection of John Quincy Adams Images. The first (below left) is by New England artist, Edward Dalton Merchant, the second by Philadelphia artist, John Wesley Jarvis (below, right), a British born nephew of the Methodist leader, John Wesley. Both paintings likely date from the 1840s.

John Quincy Adams,
1840, Edward Merchant
John Quincy Adams,
John Wesley Jarvis
First Lady Louisa Catherine Adams is represented by two very different portraits. The first, by Charles Bird King, (below, right) is incredibly pretentious in its classical depiction of the first lady playing a harp. I could find no indication she ever played the instrument. The second, much more traditional, is by Gilbert Stuart (below, left) is the one hanging in the White House today. Both were painted around the same time. After his stint as president, John Quincy Adams did something no president, before or since, has ever done. In 1831, instead of retiring, the former president ran for a seat in the House of Representatives where he served for another seventeen years before his death on the floor of the House from a stroke in 1848. He was eighty-five years old. As surprising as that might be, John Quincy Adams' death has been recorded by an unknown painter among a crowd of concerned Congressmen observing firsthand the death of the great statesman (bottom).

Louisa Catherine Adams,
 Charles Bird King.
Louisa Adams, 1821, Gilbert Stuart
John Quincy Adams,1848, suffering a stroke on the floor of the House of Representatives.



  1. Thanks for the photographs. I'm reading a book about Louisa Adams ("Louisa"), and it has only one picture of her at age 18 or so. None of John Quincy. So I got curious.

  2. Thanks for your comment. Presidential trivia has always been an interest of mine. Even at that, researching their portraits was something of an eye-opener.