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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


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