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Thursday, August 27, 2015

Lyndon B. Johnson Portraits

Portrait of Lyndon B. Johnson, 1968, Elizabeth Shoumatoff
One-hundred and seven years ago today, August 27, 1908, the thirty-sixth President of the United States was born in a small farmhouse on the Pedernales River near Stonewall, Texas. Lyndon Baines Johnson was the eldest of five children. Some fifty-five years later, Johnson, as Vice President, became President following the tragic assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He was elected in his own right in a landslide victory in 1964. President Johnson is the only president I have ever seen "in person"--from several hundred yards away, for about one second, as his bubble-top limousine passed in a Cincinnati motorcade. My first impression--he had big ears. Indeed, they were a featured noted by more than one artist who was unfortunate enough to have painted this president. I say "unfortunate" because LBJ hated sitting for artists and seldom gave artists more than an hour to do their best. His official White House portrait by Elizabeth Shoumatoff was no exception, other than she rated two such brief sittings.
The unfinished portrait of President
Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1945,
Elizabeth Shoumatoff
The Russian-born Shoumatoff painted Johnson in 1969 after he'd left office, so he was a little more free with his time. Never one to heap praise, Johnson responded to it, "It's excellent. I like it very much. Shoumatoff also painted the first lady, Claudia (Lady Bird) Johnson. However her most famous presidential portrait went unfinished. On April 12, 1945, in the early afternoon, while Shoumatoff was working on a preliminary watercolor portrait (left) of then President Franklin D. Roosevelt, he suddenly told her, "I have a terrific pain in the back of my head." He collapsed and died within hours, of a massive cerebral hemorrhage (stroke). President Johnson was more fortunate. He lived for another five years following his portrait encounter with Miss Shoumatoff.

Norman Rockwell's Look magazine portrait of Lyndon Johnson, was
published just two days before the 1964 election opposite a much more
flattering Rockwell painting of Johnson's opponent, Senator Barry Goldwater.
As a subject for portraits, LBJ was a tough customer to deal with. Even the iconic Norman Rockwell had problems. During the 1964 campaign, when Rockwell was first introduced to the president, Johnson told him he could afford but twenty minutes, "So get crackin'." Even for an artist of Rockwell's caliber, that's a ridiculously short period to even begin a portrait, not to mention the fact that Johnson was a somewhat hyperactive sitter, easily bored, and short-tempered as well. Despite Rockwell's best efforts to engage the president, joking with him, trying to reason with him, giving him instructions, the man simply sat there glowering at him. Finally Rockwell played the political card, "Mr. President,” he said, “I have just done Barry Goldwater’s portrait and he gave me a wonderful grin. I wish you would do the same.” It worked, but only to a degree. Johnson obliged the artist for about one minute forcing his mouth into a manifestly fake smile, “like he was competing for the Miss America title,” as Rockwell put it later. The portrait of Johnson (above), with his long face and droopy ears, did little to rehabilitated the tired tradition of the presidential portraits. Yet it is probably as appealing a portrait of Johnson as any ever done, honest in its likeness, psychologically astute, and utterly devoid of pomp.

Johnson's National Portrait Gallery portrait, 1966, Peter Hurd.
Rockwell was considerably more fortunate than Peter Hurd. At the time, Hurd was probably the most famous and sought-after portrait artist in America. Hailing from the famous N.C. Wyeth clan of the Brandywine School centered around Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, Hurd was married to Wyeth's daughter, Henriette, the sister of Andrew Wyeth, and a very respectable painter in her own right. Hurd had, in fact, studied under his father-in-law. Unlike Rockwell, Hurd was afforded two relatively short sessions with the president, though, during one of which, LBJ nodded off, presenting Hurd with a view of little more than the president's thinning hair. Despite the difficulties presented by a less than cooperative model, Hurd and his wife drove to the famous LBJ Ranch in Texas late in October, 1966, where they gave the president a sneak peek at the painting before it was to be officially unveiled at a White House ceremony a few months later. The timing was probably fortunate. The president's reaction: "[It's] the ugliest thing I ever saw." While probably not quite that bad, the painting does present a rather manikin-like stiffness suggesting Hurd might have completed it at Madame Tussaud's Washington Wax Museum. Stunned, Hurd managed to control his dismay asking the president, “Just what do you like, Mr. President?” Johnson is said to have rushed to his desk and pulled out an old Look magazine, shouting, “I will show you what I like!” Then he waved the portrait that Rockwell had done. The Johnsons refused to hang Hurd's portrait in the White House. Therefore, seeking revenge, in March, 1967, Hurd put the painting on display at the Diamond M Museum in Snyder, Texas. It drew the largest crowd in the museum's history. Hurd later donated the painting to the National Portrait Gallery where it hangs today.

LBJ portrait, ca. 1965-67, Robert Templeton
Lyndon B. Johnson, by an
unknown artist, is obviously
based upon Johnson's official
White House photo.
Two unofficial portraits of Johnson have struck me as exceptional, each in their own way. The first, (above, left) by the well-known portrait artist, Robert Templeton, attempts to capture the president in three familiar moods. The second (above, right)is by (so far as I can tell) an unknown artist, based upon Johnson's official White House photo. Templeton's painting, despite his use of three separate photo-based images, seems lacking in the most basic portrait attribute--a good, solid, likeness (the lower-right image appears to be the best of the three in that regard). And though the pose may be quite characteristic, a portrait artist should never cover his subject's most expressive feature with fingers. Also, a portrait image in profile is seldom a good idea either. By way of contrast, the likeness is much better in the portrait by the unknown artist, though the painting style seems somewhat harsh. Having an excellent photo from which to work helps too.

Claudia (Lady Bird Johnson), 1968, Elizabeth Shoumatoff
As is sometimes the case, the official White House portrait of Lyndon Johnson was painted by the same artist who simultaneously did the official portrait of the First Lady. Elizabeth Shoumatoff's brightly colored portrait of Claudia (Lady Bird) Johnson (above), would suggest that at least someone in the Johnson family knew how to smile convincingly. Shoumatoff had earlier done an informal portrait of LBJ (below), which apparently won her the commission, in the wake of the Hurd fiasco, to once more have a chance to paint an official portrait of a president.

Portrait of Lyndon Baines Johnson, Elizabeth Shoumatoff


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