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Monday, October 5, 2015

Chester A. Arthur Portraits

Chester A. Arthur, official White House portrait, Daniel Huntington
American voters have often displayed the bad habit of not paying much attention to the vice-presidential nominees of the two major parties. Then one dark day, in a state of shock over the death of a president, the nation is faced with a still more troubling shock of realizing they hardly know the man replacing their deceased leader. It's happened again and again, starting with John Tyler, later Andrew Johnson, then Chester A. Arthur, Teddy Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, and finally, Lyndon Johnson (though thanks to Johnson's long career in the U.S. Senate and modern media exposure, his elevation to the presidency was not such a shock to the nation as it was to the Democratic party). Chester Alan Arthur was the second vice-president to occupy the White House as a result of an assassination (the first being Andrew Johnson). Our twenty-first president of the United States was born on this date, 186 years ago--October 4, 1829. His official White House portrait (above) was painted by Daniel Huntington, who also painted that of Rutherford B. Hayes (in the previous post, below).
The 1880 Republican nominees as seen by the printmakers, Currier & Ives.
James A. Garfield of Ohio was elected president in 1880 following the lackluster administration of Rutherford B. Hayes (the item below). Garfield's administration was even more lackluster in that he was shot by a disgruntled office seeker, Charles J. Guiteau, on July 2, 1881, little more than four months after he took office. Garfield was to linger near death for just over two more months until September 19, 1881. A Currier & Ives campaign poster (above) identifies both men as (Civil War) generals, though Arthur never saw combat, having been "appointed" as quartermaster general in the New York Militia. In contrast, Garfield entered the war as a Colonel, leading troops in several major battles before leaving the army as a Major General to serve in Congress. Garfield was a legitimate war hero who, as President, gave his life for his country. The best that could be said about Arthur was that he rose to become an important cog in New York City Republican machine politics. Arthur, being from New York, was selected as Garfield's running mate to "balance" the ticket.

Ellen Lewis Herndon Arthur
Despite a somewhat shady past in politics (he was fired from his post as Collector of the Port of New York by President Hayes in 1878), Chester A. Arthur, though serving for less than four years, was probably a better president than historians give him credit. He arrived at the White House as a man in mourning for his deceased wife, the lovely Ellen Lewis Herndon Arthur, who had died of pneumonia in January of the previous year. She was forty-two. Thus Ellen Arthur never served as first lady, her role as hostess being filled as needed by Arthur's sister, Mary Arthur McElroy. Ellen Arthur's painted portrait is not among those of the presidents' wives in the White House. Her portrait (right) was painted posthumously from a photo by an unknown artist. Arthur's ascendency to the nation's highest office is treated humorously by Puck cartoonist Joseph Keppler (below) as he faces down the cabinet members of his deceased predecessor. Most of them hated Arthur's guts. The rest merely distrusted him.

Arthur facing Garfield's cabinet, Puck Cartoon, Joseph Keppler. The portrait figures are President Chester A. Arthur, Attorney General Wayne MacVeagh, Secretary of the Treasury William Windom, Secretary of State James G. Blaine, Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln (Abraham Lincoln's son), Secretary of the Interior Samuel J. Kirkwood, Postmaster General Thomas L. James, and Secretary of the Navy William H. Hunt.
Chester A. Arthur had a pleasant, but rather ordinary face. However, he more than made up for this with his rather unforgettable "mutton chop" sideburns which, along with a similarly bushy moustache, completely encircled his head. It was an era, starting with Lincoln, when many, perhaps most, men wore some type of facial hair. Arthur's was distinctive, one might go so far as to say radical, even for the gilded age. Two head-and-shoulder portraits capture this trademark feature quite well, one by the folks at Madame Tussaud's with their three-dimensional wax figure (below, left), and the second by Ole Peter Hansen Balling (who also painted the official White House portrait of James Garfield). Balling's portrait of Arthur (below, right) however hangs in Washington's National Portrait Gallery. In addition to his "stylish" facial hair, Arthur was known to be a natty dresser as well. He owned over sixty different suits and was the first president to hire a personal valet to manage them.

Chester Alan Arthur as seen
at Madame Tussaud's
Chester A. Arthur, NPG portrait,
Ole Peter Hansen Bailing.
After Arthur took office he learned he had kidney disease, though he kept it a secret. Despite his medical condition he managed to survive Garfield's remaining three-and-a-half-year term as a president. Chester A. Arthur died in November, 1886, less than two years after leaving the presidency. And finally, Arthur (left) is also included among the forty-three sculpted busts of presidents (mentioned yesterday, the item below) by the Texas painter/sculptor David Adickes. The sideburns are a bit less "fluffy" than those seen in most of the painted portraits of Arthur; but then again, even carved in stone, there's always the danger of their breaking off if "undercut" too much.


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