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Saturday, October 31, 2015

Austin Osman Spare

Portrait of Sigmund Freud, 1955, Austin Osman Spare
I don't normally correlate what I write with all the various holidays during the year (Christmas and New Year's usually being an exception). Since I grew too old to embark on a trick-or-treat sojourn around town, Halloween has not been one of my favorite holidays. I've long seen it as a holiday to get out of he way in welcoming Thanksgiving and Christmas. However, I recently stumbled upon the perfect artist to embody the deeply occult elements of Halloween. I know a little about Halloween's origins during the Post-Roman period, the Druids in England, etc., though I've never been drawn to the occult. But inasmuch as today is Halloween, let me welcome you to the art and mind of the British artist, occultist, and sensualist, Austin Osman Spare. I have to admit, some of the terms and phrases associated with Austin Spare's art and writings are quite foreign to me. I would consider him far from a favorite artist, but I can appreciate his excellent draughtsmanship and the mastery of lines and masses as seen in his work. However, for the most part, I confess, he's way too deep for me.
Austin Osman Spare--a man of many faces. His self-portraits abound.
Just seeing a few of his many self-portraits dating from his lifetime (above) the man appears sinister and mysterious. It's said appearances can be deceiving, but not in this case. How does a man become an occultist? In Austin's case, I'd say it developed from a teenage obsession. Spare was born in 1886 near the working-class section of London known as Snow Hill, but grew up in the Kennington and Smithfield precincts of London. His father was a London policeman, his mother the daughter of a Royal Marine. Their son, Austin, was the fourth and youngest of their children. Aside from an early display of art talent, Austin's childhood would seem to have been that of a typical Anglican Christian boy, though one with a vivid imagination. From the age of twelve, he began taking evening classes at Lambeth School of Art. Around the time he turned fourteen, Spare went to work for a printing company as a poster designer. Later he worked designing for a glass-making company while attending classes. In due time, Spare's drawings won him a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Art. There he achieved additional attention when his drawings were exhibited in the British Art Section of the St. Louis Exposition and the Paris International Exhibition. In 1903 he won a silver medal at the National Competition of Schools of Art.

Intemperance, Austin Osman Spare
While still living with his parents and studying at the RCA, Spare became rebellious, dissatisfied with the teaching he received there. As a result, he was often disciplined for being truant. Influenced by the work of Charles Ricketts, Edmund Sullivan, George Frederick Watts and especially Aubrey Beardsley, Spare's artistic style focused on clear lines, in stark contrast to the College's emphasis on ephemeral shading. He began dressing in flamboyant, unconventional clothes, while developing a particularly strong friendship with Sylvia Pankhurst, a prominent women's rights Suffragette. Around the same time, Spare rejected his Christian upbringing in favor of something called Western Esotericism in-volving an amalgam of Hermetism, Gnosticism, Neoplatonism, and other exoteric philosophies developed as schools of thought distinct from mainstream Christianity. Basically he em-braced a sort of medieval neo-paganism.

Portrait of the Artist, 1907,
Austin Osman Spare
When Austin was still only seventeen, his father secretly submitted two of his son's drawings to the Royal Academy. One of them, a design for a bookplate, was accepted for exhibition at that year's prestigious summer exhibition. British journalists took a particular interest in Spare's work, high-lighting the fact that, at seventeen, he was the youngest artist in the exhibition. The American artist, John Singer Sargent termed Spare a "genius," calling him the greatest draughtsman in England. In a sense, fame came to easily for Spare. For the next ten years or so he became the "poster boy" of London poster design while at the same time publishing several books of his drawings starting with Earth Inferno in 1905, followed by The Book of Satyrs (1907), The Book of Pleasure (1913), The Focus of Life (1921), and finally, his downfall as an artist, The Anathema of Zos in 1927.

Just one of many self-published art books.
Each book of drawings, and later, his writings, seemed more mystical and mysterious than the one before. An anonymous critic in 1914 wrote in reviewing Spare's The Book of Pleasure: "It is impossible for me to regard Mr. Spare's drawings other-wise than as diagrams of ideas which I have quite failed to unravel; I can only regret that a good draughtsman limits the scope of his appeal." I guess I'm not alone in thinking of much Spare's work as being "over my head." Art may be more powerful than words. Perhaps the artist himself put it best in his Focus of Life: "Art is the truth we have realized of our belief."

Operating in a Regimental
Aid Post, 1918, Austin Spare
The war years found Spare serving in the Royal Medical Corps administering tetanus shots to men going overseas. The job was not a good fit. Spare was deemed too "scruffy" to be an orderly. I guess he was not "orderly" enough. Eventually he was appointed a staff sergeant and assigned to work with a whole studio full of other artists in "illustrating the war." After the war, Spare took up residence in a small, Blooms-bury flat where he continued illustrating his self-published books focusing on the occult. During the 1920s, Spare financed several unsuccessful publishing efforts involving chaos magic. Despite a poverty-stricken lifestyle, Spare continued publish very small additions of his books involving Automatic Drawing and the like, aimed at an ever-shrinking group of readers. His sketchbook of automatic drawings, Book of Ugly Ecstasy, which contained a series of grotesque creatures; sold but one copy.

Cats and Chaos during the war.
With the advent of Surrealism in the mid-1930s, critics took a new look at Spare's work and deemed him the "Father of Surrealism." For a time it looked as if Spare's star would once again rise. However with the arrival of the London Blitz in 1940, Spare tried to enlist but was deemed too old (he was 54 at the time). Worse still, the following year, Spare's tiny flat in South London fell victim to Luftwaffe bombing. He lost everything. He found housing in the Brixton basement of his friend Ada Pain, cramped confines where Spare was reduced to sleeping on two chairs surrounded by stray cats, which he fed (right). After the war, Spare made something of a comeback with a successful gallery show and renewed interest in his writings by well-to-do patrons. His Portrait of Sigmund Freud (top) dates from this latter stage in his life as does his Aida (below) from 1954.

Aida, 1954, Austin Osman Spare
Austin Osman Spare--a magician
who painter or a magic artist?
Spare's Aida is a pastel drawing on cardboard. The piece represents an excellent example of the artist's "automatic" drawing. The head and torso is of an enigmatic woman of regal bearing, wearing an Egyptian headdress, which dominates the center of the composition. She peers haughtily to her left, breasts bared at the lower edge of the painting. Aida's line of sights seems to be directed at a weird facial image emerging from the chaotic field to her left and front. To her right background, unformed shapes swirl mindlessly upward. Despite the seeming lack of distinct focal points, the painting possesses a strong sense of depth, resulting from the forceful positioning of the queen, relative to the formlessness on the left, and to the emergent visage on the right front. The unformed void area is distinctly behind the chaos field while the and face is distinctly forward. The contrast between the crisply drawn features of Aida and the wild vagueness within further accentuates the visual depth of this work. This was one of Spare's last works. His health failing, Spare was admitted to a London hospital with a burst appendix in May 1956. He was also diagnosed with anemia, bronchitis, high blood pressure and gall stones. He died a few days later at the age of sixty-nine.


Friday, October 30, 2015

John Adams Portraits

John Adams, 1782-83, John Trumbull, official White house Portrait.
It's not a very well-known fact, but some pretty well-known artists have a penchant for copying one another's work. That seems to be especially the case with regard to portraits, and even more the case when the subject is a sitting president (standing presidents, too). Gilbert Stuart went so far as to copy himself when it came to painting portraits of George Washington. He did more than 130 copies of what's come to be known as the Athenaeum Portrait (the original of which was left unfinished so he'd not have to part with it). He sold them for one-hundred dollars each. As for George's vice president, John Adams, whose birthday is today, he painted at least four different paintings of him. In fact, Stuart was President Adams favorite artist:

"Speaking generally, no penance is like having one's picture done. You must sit in a constrained and unnatural position, which is a trial to the temper. But I should like to sit to Stuart from the first of January to the last of December, for he lets me do just what I please, and keeps me constantly amused by his conversation."
                                                                                              — John Adams
Copyright, Jim Lane
Adams by Stuart, painted over the course of about 40 years.
The two on the upper-right are identical except for the warmer flesh tones and the red suit.
Copyright, Jim Lane
John Adams, John Singleton Copley
John Adams became the second president of the United States in 1789 and served until 1797. He was born in 1755 and died on July 4th, 1826 at the age of seventy-two (within hours of the death of Thomas Jefferson on the same date). Today would be his 260th birthday. And, as the quotation above would indicate, sitting for his portrait was not one of his favorite duties as President, aside from his fondness for the company of Gilbert Stuart. Despite this natural aversion, Adams did indulge several other artists along the way, such as John Trumbull, who painted the official White House portrait of him (top), John Singleton Copley (right), Samuel F.B. Morris, William Winstanley, James Sharples, Mather Brown, but not the well-known landscape artist, Asher B. Durand, who, from all indications, simply copied one of Gilbert Stuart's portraits of Adams (below).
Copyright, Jim Lane
Only the flesh tones differ between Durand's copy and Stuart's original.
John Adams, James Sharples.
The quality of work found in the Adams portraits varies quite a lot, as one might expect in a country still populated mostly by self-taught artist. James Sharples' Portrait of John Adams is a better than average, Folk Art portrait apparently painted early in Adams' life--perhaps the first ever painted of the future President. Today, it hangs along side a Gilbert Stuart painting of Adams in Washington's National Portrait Gallery. Sharples' forthright depiction of Adams contrasts sharply with the grandiose attempt by William Winstanley (below) to copy the style and pose of Stuart's famous Landsdowne standing portrait of Washington. The pose is unflattering (unlike Washington, Adams was short and on the chubby side), the anatomical proportions are all wrong, the likeness itself is poor, the perspective crude, and the artists obsession with detail as to the still-life on the table robs the work of the emphasis which should focus on the portrait's subject. I would class it in the "laughably bad" category.

Portrait of John Adams, 1798, William Winstanley
Quite frankly, John Trumbull's Portrait of John Adams (top), which today hangs in the White House, is only somewhat better than Winstanley's pretentious presentation. Trumbull's Adams has a boyish look in terms of the likeness (it was painted before Adams became President). Moreover, Trumbull's positioning of the head squarely in the center of the canvas is not only bad portrait composition, but further emphasizes the president's shortness in stature (of which he was quite self-conscious). He simply doesn't look very "presidential" at all.

John Adams, 1788,
Mather Brown
John Adams, ca. 1816,
Samuel F.B. Morse
Two other Adams portraits stand on a par with those of Stuart. The first, by Mather Brown (above, left), an English portrait artist, was done while Adams and Jefferson were on a diplomatic mission to London. Thomas Jefferson wanted a portrait of his friend, Adams, but not one of the many copies Stuart and others were churning out at the time. He wanted an original, and that meant persuading Adams to do the "penance" of sitting for yet another portrait. The year was around 1788. After some cajoling, Adams agreed. Jefferson paid for the painting, then took it home with him. It hung at Monticello for the rest of Jefferson's life. The second was by Samuel F.B. Morris (above, right, before he gave up painting to invent telegraphs). It dates from 1816, long after Adams had left office and depicts a man well into the latter stages of old age. The two, painted some thirty years apart, underscores the fact that time is not kind, even to former presidents.

Abigail Adams Supervising a Servant in the White House, 1866, Gordon Phillips.
(That's the East Room, by the way.)
John and Abigail Adams had the dubious honor of being the first presidential couple to live in the brand new executive mansion located along a wooded Pennsylvania Avenue in the new capital city of Washington D.C. The house was cold, drafty, and more than a little unfinished. Mrs. Adams, with her New England Yankee ingenuity, made the best of it as depicted some sixty-five years later by artist, Gordon Phillips (above). Her portrait by Gilbert Stuart (below, left), seems to capture this stubborn determination to make the best of an uncomfortable situation. If you find it unflattering, it's nothing compared to the contemporary portrait of her husband by artist Robert Joyner (bottom).

First Lady Abigail Smith Adams, 1800-16, Gilbert Stuart.
(The title "First Lady" was not commonly used until the 1870s.)

John Adams, 2012, Robert Joyner


Thursday, October 29, 2015

Betty Parsons

Betty Parsons, 1963, Sylvia Sleigh
Three Trees, watercolor,
ca. 1937, Betty Parsons
I've always liked the analogy as of taking ones life by the horns and "driving" it in the direction you want to go. The opposite of that is to grab hold of life by the tail and hang on for a wild ride. One is active, the other passive. Invariably, the key to taking control is higher education, allowing one greater freedom in choosing a career (and thus a life) rather than settling for whatever existence happenstance allows. It's the difference between a job and a career. The more education, the more choices, and in general, the higher one may rise socially and economically. It's a pyramid: the base is backbreaking labor. The second level is skilled labor. the third level is responsible skilled labor (supervising others). The fourth level is corporate management. And at the top is creative innovation. Sometimes a young person may aim at some lower level only to be thrust upward to a much higher level far beyond their wildest dreams. That's what happened to Betty Parsons.

Four untitled pieces, Betty Parsons
She was never much of a picture painter and Betty Parson's other works involving painted blocks of wood (above) formed into abstract arrangements were hardly better. Her Three Trees (above, left), from around 1937, are decorative at best, "ho-hum" at worst. Her crudely painted stripes on blocks of wood are a curator's worst nightmare. They're all untitled and undated. The best that can be said about Betty Parsons' Sailboat, Rockport (below) is that it has a Matisse-like quality to it. However, dated at sometime after 1943, a time when Matisse was immensely popular in the United States, that's not too surprising.

Sailboat, Rockport, 1943-82, Betty Parsons
As a gallery owner responsible for bringing to light any number of Abstract Expressionists during the 1950s until her retirement in 1981 and death the following year, one might expect Betty Parsons' paintings along that line to be her most outstanding work. One would be wrong. As seen in her (again) Untitled (below, left)from 1950, and her Untitled Abstraction (below, right), Parsons' painting expertise and imagination are nowhere near that of the artists whom she represented. Though she had exhibits of her work in galleries around the world, and has been similarly collected by museums around the world, this recognition is not predicated on her work, but on her abundant connections in the art world and her name recognition. By the way, I counted at least seven of Parsons' paintings titled Untitled Abstraction. There were nine others marked as Untitled. As a gallery owner, you'd think she'd have known better. The other conclusion to be drawn from both her works and her titles (or lack thereof) is that, though she considered herself a artist, she was not, by her nature, a very creative individual.

Untitled, 1950, Betty Parsons
Untitled Abstraction, Betty Parsons
If not terribly talented as an artist, who was Betty Parsons? She was born Betty Bierne Pierson in 1900. She came from a wealthy New York family that divided their time between New York City, Newport, Palm Beach, and for a time, lived in Paris. As a teenager, she went to Miss Chapin's School for Girls in New York, though she was a very mediocre student, spoiled, and easily bored. The turning point in her life came in 1913 when she visited New York's famed Armory Show. There she was exposed to the work of virtually every artist from the era of Modern Art, both American and European. Despite the disapproval of her parents, the headstrong teenager decided she wanted to be an artist and chose as her instructor the sculptor, Gutzon Borglum. She could hardly have made a worse choice. Borglum is recalled by Parsons and others as a terrible teacher. At the age of nineteen, Betty made another bad decision. She married Schuyler Livingston Parsons, a wealthy New York City playboy some ten years her senior. Her family hoped she would settle down into a conventional lifestyle. Three years later, the couple divorced on the grounds of incompatibility. She kept his name, however.

A Betty Parsons watercolor (probably untitled).
During the next several years, Betty Parsons remained in Paris, studying art under various mostly second-rate painters, but more importantly, getting to know them and their art quite intimately. Then, around 1933, the family wealth evaporated with the Great Depression, forcing Parson's to find a job and go to work for the first time in her life. Born in 1900, she was thirty-three by then. She tried teaching a sculpture class in California for a year or two, but in 1936 found herself back in New York with a one-woman show of her watercolors (similar to that above) at a mid-town gallery. The reviews were positive, if not overwhelmingly so. Her work was deemed "delightful" and "interestingly conceived." I've got a collection of glass paperweights of which the same could be said.
When the Betty Parsons Gallery first opened in 1946, the market for contemporary
art was miniscule and the reactions to it often quite negative.
Following her first one-woman show, the gallery owner, Alan Bruskin, offered Parsons a job selling art on commission. From there, around 1937, Parson quickly moved up to the gallery of Mary Quinn Sullivan, a founding trustee of the Museum of Modern Art, in New York. In 1940, Parsons left Sullivan's gallery and took a position managing a contemporary gallery in the Wakefield Bookshop on East 55th Street. This was her first job managing a gallery on her own in which she had full curatorial control regarding artists and exhibitions. Parsons soon began collection contemporary artists like some ladies collect silver teaspoons. In no time she was representing the likes of Saul Steinberg, Adolph Gottlieb, Alfonso Ossorio, Hedda Sterne, Theodoros Stamos, and Joseph Cornell. Four years later, by 1944, Parsons was invited to start and manage a contemporary art division in the gallery of art dealer, Mortimer Brandt. When he moved to England after the war, Parsons subleased the space and opened her own gallery on the fifth floor of a building on East 57th Street.
Betty Parsons' Irascibles--Front row:1.Theodoros Stamos, 2. Jimmy Ernst, 3. Barnett Newman, 4. James Brooks, 5. Mark Rothko; middle row: 6. Richard Pousette-Dart, 7. William Baziotes, 8. Jackson Pollock, 9. Clyfford Still,  10. Robert Motherwell, 11. Bradley Walker Tomlin; back row: 12. Willem de Kooning,
31. Adolph Gottlieb, 14. Ad Reinhardt, and (standing) 15. Hedda Sterne.
The letter that got Parsons Pollock.
In 1946, Parsons put up one-thousand dollars and borrowed another four thousand to open her gallery. She held twelve shows per season (September thru May). Having found her niche in the world of art, Parson hung in there, though in the beginning, sales often bordered on the abysmal. Fortunately, Parsons' big break came just a year later when her friendly competitor, the wealthy heiress, Peggy Guggenheim, decided to close her Art of this Century Gallery in New York and set up shop in Venice on the Grand Canal. Parsons "inherited" Guggen-heim's "stable" of budding your artist (left). As the group photo above, from Life Magazine in 1951 suggests, it was quite the motley crew. Actually, they called themselves the "Irascibles." If contemporary accounts are accurate, they were well named.

Click below for a broader view of Betty Parson's 1950s world of contemporary art--

"All I did was supply the walls."

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Joaquín Sorolla

Joaquin Sorolla, Hispanic Society of America, Washington Heights, New York
It's strange how our attitudes regarding certain types of art content have change in the past hundred years or so. Today, if an artist were to paint a whole series of nude children frolicking unashamedly in the sun soaked surf along a seashore, slithering like suntanned eels across the wet sands, he or she would likely get arrested for purveying child pornography. At the very least the artist (especially if male) would be suspect as a closet pedophile. Never mind the fact that the children depicted are pre-teens and in no way sexualized, except maybe in the mind of the beholder. Even if the painting style is so loosely impressionistic that few anatomical details are noticeable, whole groups of homophobes would likely rise up in an outraged outcry. The Spanish artist, Joaquin Sorolla, roughly a hundred years ago, painted quite a number of such scenes. They were a far cry from being anywhere near his total, lifetime output; and in general, depicted what was considered standard swimming attire (for young boys especially) at that time and that place (Valencia). Seldom, if ever, do we see nude boys and girls swimming together in any of Sorolla's paintings (except, perhaps, in the case of toddlers). The artist seems most interested in depicting the sleek, slender, slippery beauty (below) of his preadolescent figures; all of which serves to underline the differences in attitudes various cultural societies observe regarding the nude body, especially as to age.

Children on the Beach, 1910, Joaquin Sorolla
Sorolla's Children on the Beach (above), from 1910, is a prime example. Despite being fairly broadminded on the subject, and the fact that I suspect most of my readers are as well, I still thought long and hard as to whether to include it here with Sorolla's other works. Near the bottom are one or two others falling into the same category. They're not child pornography by any standard and only the narrowest minds applying the broadest definition, would even consider them obscene. Personally, I don't even consider them in questionable taste. Yet, initially at least, I felt uncomfortable in displaying them. The differences in art now and art then has to do with the fundamental change in the legal definition and acceptance of the sexualized nude figure in American culture as the "baby boom" generation came of age in the 1960s and 70s. Unfortunately, along with this maturing of attitude as to artistic nudity (and that less so) came the emergence of child pornography. As a result, this latter correlation lingers just below the surface judgment of even the most sophisticated art appreciator.

Joaquin Sorolla, maturing as a man and as an artist over more than thirty years.
To further understand this phenomena, one needs to know and understand the artist. Joaquin Sorolla was a child of the 19th-century, born in 1863. He was not just a mostly 19th-century painter, but a painter of Valencia, a eastern costal community on the sun-drenched Mediterranean, and today the third largest city in Spain. Unfortunately, most Americans think of the area only for its oranges. Very well, to get that association out of sight and out of mind, it's true, Sorolla painted The Orange Seller (below) in 1891. It's not one of his better paintings, but the very juicy, thin-skinned, thoroughly seedy, Valencia orange is one of the world's better oranges; though it originated in hybrid form in southern California, USA, around 1860. And so far as I know, its association with Valencia, Spain, is one of name only.

The Orange Seller, 1891, Joaquin Sorolla
Joaquin Sorolla's association with Valencia goes far beyond one of name only. One might go so far as to say his art is the heart and soul of his native region. His paintings center not only on the seashore and its naked native munchkins, but on its fishermen, its (adult) natives, its warm, dry landscape, its agrarian society, and its deeply Catholic religious heritage. One of Sorolla's earliest major works, Father Jofré Protecting a Madman (below), came in 1887, shortly after his first sojourn to Paris. There he was exposed to Impressionism, which became his primary painting style for the remainder of his life.

Father Jofré Protecting a Madman, 1887, Joaquin Sorolla
Seville, the Dance, 1915, Joaquin Sorolla
Having been to the Valencia area of Spain just this past spring, I can affirm that it was one of the most colorful in all the Mediterranean region. Sorolla's Guitar Players, Valencia (below), from 1889, reflects not so much what I saw but the lively, innocent world in which Sorolla lived and painted before the political and revolutionary torment which plagued Spain during the early 20th-century. Similarly, Sorolla's Seville, the Dance (left), from exactly one-hundred years ago, is rife with native color and native colors. Moreover, it's only in a gallery setting that we get some kind of handle on the impressive scale of Sorolla's murals as seen in his work for the Hispanic Society of America Museum in Washington Heights, New York (top).
The Guitar Players, Valencia ,1889, Joaquin Sorolla
Sorolla also painted portraits. Among them are one of his daughter, Maria Painting in El Pardo, (below), from 1907. She is shown amid a light, bright, swirl of pigmented brushwork painting in plein air. The work is fascinating both for his lively Impressionist handling of paint, as well as the clothing travails painting women had to endure at the time. Below that, we see Sorolla's American friend, patron, and fellow artist, Louis Comfort Tiffany. Did anyone really get all decked out in white, three-piece suit and tie to go about painting in the wilds of Eastern Spain?

Maria Painting in El Pardo, 1907, Joaquin Sorolla
Louis Comfort Tiffany, 1911, Joaquin Sorolla
Despite having seen and discussed all the various painted works of Joaquin Sorolla, it's hard to drive from ones mind the lingering images of the playful young boys and girls for which Sorolla, unfortunately, may be best known. They linger, partly because of their freshness and adolescent beauty, as in Sorolla's Children on the Seashore (below), from 1903, but also because, today, in America at least, we're so unaccustomed to seeing young children depicted in the nude (in Europe, not so much). Even in seeing Sorolla's playful The Bath, Javea (bottom), from 1905, and despite the circumstances depicted, and the fact that the painting is some 110 years old, it's hard for our narrow, naughty, 21st-century minds to get past the reality that it is, in fact, a painting of a naked child.

Children on the Seashore, 1903, Joaquin Sorolla
The Bath, Javea, 1905, Joaquin Sorolla


Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Theodore Roosevelt Portraits

President Theodore Roosevelt, Official White House Portrait, 1903, John Singer Sargent
Are you ready for another U.S. President? On this day, October 27, 1858, (157 years ago) was born the 26th President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt. He was born at 28, East 20th Street, Manhattan, New York, the second of four children to socialite Martha Stewart Bulloch and glass businessman Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. (their son never included the designation, Jr. after his name). Interestingly, the baby lacked a middle name, though, as President, he acquired the nickname, "Teddy," or "TR," which more or less served the same purpose. John Singer Sargent, who painted TR's official White House portrait (above) recalled him as being something of a cantankerous model. After hours of preliminary sketches in various poses and White House venues, both artist and model were becoming irritated. As the president headed upstairs ready to call it quits, he remarked that he didn't think Sargent had a clue as to what he wanted. Sargent shot back to the effect that Roosevelt didn't know what was needed in a pose. Roosevelt paused on the landing, gripped the banister nodule, fist on his hip, and replied none too softly, "Don't I?" Instantly, Sargent found his pose.

Theodore Roosevelt, 1908, Adrian Lamb, National Portrait Gallery
As many portrait artists have belatedly discovered, painting a president, especially one still in office, is no simple or pleasant task. You can only plead with the man so many times to "please don't move," before he begins to become resentful, which can often be seen plainly in his face. Aides come and go, sittings are brief (as little as a half-hour in some cases), and often spread over weeks during which time even oils become dry. Sargent encountered all those woes. Another artist, Adrian Lamb, painting Roosevelt in 1908, near the end of his term, had a much easier time in rendering the portrait of the president (above), which now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Who copied whom?
In fact, in examining Lamb's portrait, there's some question as to whether it was painted from life or from a photo, or perhaps even as a copy of another painter's work. Compare the two portraits above, both painted in 1908. The one on the left is by the Hungarian artist, Philip Alexius de Lazlo. Although the Lamb portrait would seem to be the better of the two, they are so nearly identical in pose and lighting it's obvious one artist copied the other. The attributions are undoubtedly correct and well-documented. Could both artists have painted from identical photos? You decide.

Portrait of President of
Theodore Roosevelt,
1908, Gari Melcher
Theodore Roosevelt, 1908,
Joseph Rodefer DeCamp, in what
appears to be the East Room.
Also painted in 1908 are two additional portraits by noted artists of the time. Both are full-length, Gari Melcher's robust, outdoorsy image (above, left) contrasts sharply with Joseph Rodefer DeCamp's Theodore Roosevelt (above, right) looking very presidential in his neatly cut, gray, three-piece suit. In viewing his many portraits, one has to wonder if Theodore Roosevelt ever sat down.
Edith Roosevelt, 1902, Théobald Chartran. Today it hangs in a prominent
place as part of the White House collection of First Lady portraits.
In 1902, shortly after Vice President Roosevelt became President upon the death of William McKinley, he commissioned two separate portraits by the French society artist, Theobald Chartran. Mrs. Edith Roosevelt loved hers (above). But when Roosevelt saw his, he instantly hated it. He hung it hidden away in the darkest corner of the White House. When one of TR's six kids called it the "Mewing Cat" in that he looked so harmless, Roosevelt had it destroyed. Then he hired a real man's artist, John Singer Sargent, to paint a more masculine portrait--hence the difficulty Sargent encountered in satisfying the President's tastes as to a pose.
Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt,
Rick Timmons
Portrait of Teddy Roosevelt,
Robert Joyner
It's always interesting to compare the work of present-day artists, usually working from photos, and definitely so in Roosevelt's case (he died in 1919) to those of the past. During the 20th-century, painting styles proliferated and tastes changed drastically, even as to what now passes for realism, as seen in Rick Timmons' Theodore Roosevelt (above, left). However, Expressionism is nowhere more notable than when applied to portraits such as that by Robert Joyner and his Portrait of Teddy Roosevelt (above, right). But going a step (or two...maybe three) further into the dangerous realm of portrait Expressionism is Debra Hurd's clownish Theodore Roosevelt (below).

Theodore Roosevelt, Debra Hurd
(No comment.)

The first and original "Teddy" Bear, 1902,
approved by the President himself.

Note: With regard to the little mystery posed earlier, the reason Adrian Lamb had it so much easier in painting Roosevelt than did Sargent was that he painted from Alexius de Lazlo's portrait done a few months earlier. By the end of his nearly eight years in office, TR was probably getting a little tired of posing for portraits.