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Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Zachary Taylor Portraits

Major General Zachary Taylor, ca. 1848, official White House portrait, Joseph Henry Bush

Zachary Taylor, 1848, James
Reid Lambdin, National Portrait gallery
It's probably safe to say that never in the history of the presidency of the United States was there ever a man and his wife more ill-suited for the office than General and Mrs. Zachary Taylor. Born in 1784, today, November 24th, would have been his 231st birthday. General Zach-ary Taylor was more or less drafted by the Whig Party, while his wife was vehemently opposed to her husband becoming Pres-ident. It's said that he was late receiving word from his party that he would be running for the office because he refused to accept mail marked "postage due." As a boy, growing up on the Kentucky frontier, Taylor had only a rudi-mentary education. His writing is said to have been "atrocious" and his spelling and grammar not much better. Starting in 1808, Taylor spent well over half his life as an army officer. He was one of the few Presidents never to attend college. He had few political views and in any case had very little interest in politics. Until elected president in 1848, he'd never even voted, much less held elective office. In those days, those qualities were seen as assets. He was against the spread of slavery to the western territories though he, in fact, had owned as many as 200 slaves himself at one time. Given the political realities of the period, those factors were also seen as assets. Only with great reluctance did Margaret (Peggy) Taylor follow her husband to Washington and, due to ill health, seldom took on the duties of First Lady, delegating them to her daughter, Betty Taylor Bliss (bottom). The official White House portrait of President Zachary Taylor by Joseph Henry Bush (above) from 1848, reflects this lifetime of military service, the only White House portrait to depict a president in military uniform,

Zachary Taylor (detail), 1863, G.P.A. Healy
President Zachary Taylor,
1850, John Vanderlyn
President Zachary Taylor was not what you'd call a portrait painter's dream subject. In fact, he had one of the homeliest (only a mother could love) faces to ever hold that office. Joseph Henry Bush made no attempt to mitigate Taylor's war-torn countenance. Thankfully, James Reid Lambdin did. His portrait of Taylor now in the National Portrait Gallery (above, right), was also painted in 1848, While not likely to win any beauty contests, he at least softens the man's well-lined face, erasing years from his image. The same could be said of John Vanderlyn's 1850 portrait of Taylor (right), although Vanderlyn pushes the flattery envelop to the point that his likeness of the President suffers. It's a tribute to the quintessential presidential portrait painter, George Peter Alexander Healy, that his portrait of Taylor (above), though making no obvious attempt to flatter the man, and painted some thirteen years after his death, is arguably the best of the four.

General Taylor's etched media images. His horse, Whitey, retired in old age to the White House lawn, where hair from his tail provided souvenirs for visiting tourists.
President Zachary Taylor had pretty much an average number of portraits painted and photographs taken to document his presence in the White House. His wife, on the other hand, had none. Even her "official" White House portrait can only be termed "dubious" at best. The officially White House posting is at lower right in the grouping below. The illustration of Margaret Taylor is from "Presiding Ladies of the White House," by Lila G. A. Woolfall, was published in 1903 by the Bureau of National Literature and Art, Washington, D. C. This is merely a suggested likeness, as no portrait or photograph of her is known to exist. There are a couple photos purporting to be of the First Lady, but they two are doubtful. As you can see below, none of the three bear much resemblance to one another. This lacking of a likeness is quite likely the result of Taylor's relatively brief span as President. Elected in 1848, sworn in on March 4, 1849, Taylor died in July, 1850, becoming the second President to die in office (William Henry Harrison was the first). The sixty-five-year-old president died unexpectedly of gastroenteritis (a stomach ailment) after having gorged himself on iced milk and cherries at an Independence Day celebration.

Margaret (Peggy) Taylor. The official White House image is at lower-right.

Betty Taylor Bliss, daughter of the general
and his wife, took on the duties as White House
hostess in place of her invalid mother.

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