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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Painting First Ladies

Martha Washington, 1878, Eliphalet Frazer Andrews,
official White House portrait painted seventy-six years after her death.
For any ambitious portrait painter there is seldom a better "break" than being asked to paint a portrait of the President of the United States. Virtually every portrait painter tends to be known more by who he or she paints as by their painting expertise. That, of course, is a "given" by time in their career when a portrait artist is even considered for such an honor. Along the same line, perhaps the second greatest honor for a portrait painter is to be asked to paint the official White House portrait of the First Lady. In recent years, the same artist sometimes paints both the president and his wife.
First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy,
1970, Aaron Shikler
First Lady, Nancy Reagan,
1987, Aaron Shikler

Dolley Payne Madison, 1804,
Gilbert Stuart

In 1970, Aaron Shikler was chosen by Jacqueline Kennedy to paint the official White House portrait of President Kennedy and herself (above, left). First Lady Nancy Reagan so admired the Jackie Kennedy portrait she also chose Shikler to paint her own official portrait (above, right) as well as a portrait of her husband. This portrait pair was separated, however. The President's portrait (in ranch attire) went to Washington's National Portrait Gallery. Howard Sanden painted both President George W. and Laura Bush (below).

First Lady Hillary Clinton, 2004
Simmie Knox (the only first lady to
be painted in a pants suit).
Simmie Knox painted both President Bill Clinton and First Lady, Hillary Clinton (left). He's also the first African-American to paint a president or a first lady. He may, in fact, also be the first to paint a former first lady as president. In any case, there's a respectable precedent for this practice. Gilbert Stuart painted both George and Martha Washington. However the Stuart portrait of Martha is not an official White House portrait. (Like Stuart's iconic portrait of her husband, his portrait of Martha is unfinished). Martha Washington's official White House portrait (top) was painted almost a hundred years later by Eliphalet Frazer Andrews. Gilbert Stuart is, however, represented among the artists having painted presidential wives as seen in his 1804 portrait of Dolley Payne Madison (above, right). In fact, he painted two, later rendering the portrait of of Louisa Johnson Adams (wife of John Quincy Adams) dating from 1821-26.
The unveiling ceremony for the John Howard Sanden portraits of President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush, 2012
First Lady Julia Gardiner Tyler,
ca. 1865, artist unknown
The popular use of the term, "first lady," referring to the president's wife, dates back little more than a century to around 1877 and Lucy Hayes (wife of President Rutherford B. Hayes) but the term can be traced back informally as much as fifty years before that. Though often referred to as an "unelected" government official, she is, in fact, "elected" by a narrow margin of one vote--the president's. Moreover, while there has been a certain sum set aside for White House presidential portraits dating back to the earliest years of the office, it wasn't until the 20th-century that anyone was much interested in portraits of First Ladies. However, Julia Gardiner Tyler wanted to make sure her attractive visage would forever grace the "presidential palace" (as it was called at the time). Sometime after the Civil War, she marched into the White House, her own portrait in hand, (right) and "donated" it to the nation her husband (John Tyler) had led some twenty years before.

Claudia (Lady Bird)
 Johnson, 1968,
Elizabeth Shoumatoff
Although most of the 20th-century first ladies have had their portraits donated (by themselves or others) to the White House, it wasn't until 1967 that the White House Historical Society began commissioning portraits of presidential wives starting with Elizabeth Shoumatoff's portrait of Lady Bird Johnson (left). Some twenty years earlier, Elizabeth Shoumatoff was the artist painting President Franklin D. Roosevelt when he suffered a fatal stroke, April 12, 1945. His last words were to her, "I have a terrific pain in the back of my head." The portrait has remained unfinished.

Patricia Ryan Nixon, 1978, Henriette Wyeth,
(not one of my favorites).

Perhaps my all-time favorite portrait of a first lady is that of Roosevelt's wife, Eleanor, by Douglas Chandor painted in 1949. Today it hangs in the Vermeil Room of the White House next to the Lady Bird Johnson portrait as well as those of Jackie Kennedy, Nancy Reagan, Lou Hoover (by Richard Brown) and Pat Nixon (by Henriette Wyeth, daughter of N.C. Wyeth, and sister of Andrew Wyeth). Similar to a portrait study of FDR painted by Chandor during the Yalta Conference just two months before the president's death, Eleanor's portrait features beneath a traditionally posed portrait, painted studies of the first lady's hands and face in various highly characteristic expressions. It's also a great likeness of a none-too-attractive face radiating intelligence, warmth, strength, and character.

Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, 1949, Douglas Chandor.
"A trial made pleasant by the artist."--Eleanor Roosevelt.

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