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Thursday, November 19, 2015

James A. Garfield Portraits

President James A. Garfield, official White House portrait, 1881, Calvin Curtis.
James A Garfield is the only man in the history of the United States to have actually held three elected federal government positions at the same time. During a short period in 1880 Garfield, while a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, was elected by the Ohio Senate to the U.S. Senate. However, before he could take his Senate seat, he was elected the 20th President of the United States, making him the only sitting member of the House to ever be elected President. James Abram Garfield was born on November 19th, 1831, the last president to be born in a log cabin. Today would have been his 184th birthday. Garfield also holds the distinction as being the only U.S. president able to simultaneously write Greek with one hand and Latin with the other. On a more tragic note, Garfield served the second shortest term in office, a mere one-hundred days. He was shot by an assassin on July 2, 1881. Thus it was between March 20th (Inauguration Day at the time) and July 2nd, that the artist, Calvin Curtis, painted Garfield's official White House portrait (above).
James A. Garfield, 1881, Ole Peter Hansen Balling, National Portrait Gallery
Curtis' White House portrait is not the best painted image of the 20th president. The portrait of Garfield by Ole Peter Hansen Balling (above) now in Washington's National Portrait Gallery, is much the better of the two, followed closely by a portrait from the relatively unknown, G.F. Gilman (below, left) now located in the, Library of Congress. Even an unofficial image by a completely unknown artist (below, right) rises above Curtis' dark, somber, murky, likeness.

James A. Garfield, 1881,
G.F. Gilman, Library of Congress
James A. Garfield,
Unknown artist.
Major General James A. Garfield, 1863
Three of the four portraits purport to be from the year 1881, which raises the question as to how President Garfield had time to do anything but pose for artists. Had he lived, Garfield might well have been a pretty good president. He was a pretty good general durng the Civil War, beginning as a colonel commanding an Ohio regiment he organized himself, and rising to the rank of major general (right) by the end of the war. Garfield also served nearly twenty years in Congress, though he was something of a dark horse compromise picked by a badly divided Republican party to be their choice in running to replace President Rutherford B. Hayes (also from Ohio), who chose not to run for a second term. The election was close, the Democrat, Winfield Scott Hancock, lost by a mere 9,500 votes, though Garfield's margin in the electoral college amounted to 59 votes. Thus, on March 20th, 1881, Garfield, his wife, his mother, four sons and a daughter (depicted below) moved into the White House.
The James A. Garfield family beneath the watchful eyes of Washington and Lincoln.
Little more than three months later, on the morning of July 2nd, 1881, President Garfield and most of his cabinet were about to leave town from Washington's Baltimore and Potomac Railway station when a disgruntled office seeker, Charles Guiteau, pulled a small revolver and shot the president twice, once in the back, and again in the arm. He was quickly apprehended and executed the following year. Among those at the station was Secretary of War, Robert Todd Lincoln who, sixteen years before, had watched his father die from an assassin's bullet. An artist working for Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper visualized the chaos which ensued (below).

A newspaper depiction of President James Garfield's assassination
(one of several, and not necessarily the most accurate).
Doctor Willard Bliss, a noted physician and surgeon, also an old friend of Garfield, along with about a dozen other doctors, were soon probing the wound with unsterilized fingers and instruments. Their primitive probing has since been seen to have done more harm than good. Garfield was given morphine for the pain. Later the famous inventor, Alexander Graham Bell, was called upon to locate the bullet using a primitive metal detector he'd invented. Bell was not successful. He'd neglected to consider the presence of metal bed springs. One means of keeping the president comfortable in Washington's summer heat was more successful, the first use of a makeshift air-conditioning unit in which air was propelled by fans over ice and then dried to reduced the temperature in the sickroom by 20 degrees. Much of the presidential portraiture from this time on revolved around newspaper illustrations keeping the praying public informed of the President's condition.

Turn up the A/C. The summer of 1881 was one of the hottest on record at the time.
James Garfield on his deathbed
as depicted by Frank Leslie's
absentee artist.
Garfield and his doctors had long been anxious to escape the unhealthy Washington heat. By early September they agreed to move him to the coastal village of Elberon, New Jersey, where his wife had recovered earlier in the summer. Garfield left the White House for Franklyn Cottage, a seaside mansion given over to his use. There, the wounded President could see and hearthe ocean as officials and reporters maintained what soon became a death watch. On September 19th, two months before his fiftieth birthday, by then also suffering from pneumonia and heart pains, the President died. His death was due in large part to massive infection resulting from his doctors' flagrant ignorance of sterile medical practices. A professor of surgery at New Jersey's University of Medicine and Dentistry, has argued that simple starvation also played a role. He suggests that "Garfield had such a nonlethal wound. In today's world, he would have gone home in a matter of two or three days."

The grieving widow, First Lady Lucretia Garfield.
She outlived her husband by some thirty-seven years.


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