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Tuesday, November 3, 2015

James K. Polk Portraits

James K. Polk Official White House Portrait, 1858, George P.A. Healy
As promised yesterday, the second President of the United States to be born in November 2nd, James K. Polk. Read that line carefully; don't be confused; he was not the second President of the United States, but the eleventh man to hold that office. Polk was born on November 2, 1795. Yesterday would have been his 220th birthday...had he lived this long. Actually, he died just 120 days after leaving office in March of 1849. Ironically, just four years before, when he took office, he was in robust health. The job of President took a devastating toll on him physicallly. Polk's Official White House Portrait (above) by George P.A. Healy, painted in 1858, some twelve years after Polk died, is pleasantly dignified, in the long tradition of Healy presidential portraits, giving little indication any weakness or ill health.

James K. Polk, 1849, Matthew Brady photograph (restored)

James K. Polk, 1840, Miner Kellogg,
National Portrait Gallery
Polk's National Portrait Gallery painting by Miner Kellogg (left), was done in 1840, a full four years before Polk became president, yet he appears older than in Healy's posthumous portrait. This weath-ering away is all the more noticeable when we compare most of the portraits of Polk, which tend to be fairly flattering, to the photo of the president made in 1849 by the famed Civil War photographer, Matthew Brady (above). Given the date, it would appear to be shortly before Polk died. It goes without saying that Healy would have presented the former President in a posthumous portrait at his best. And Kellogg's earlier, dour, version can largely be chalked up to simple ineptitude. However the important thing to keep in mind is that virtually all of the subsequent portraits of James K. Polk were based in part or in whole on either Healy's or Brady's images. What really adds an extra element to this discourse is that Healy had earlier painted a portrait of Polk (below), presumably from life, about the same time as Brady's photo. The variation between the two says quite a lot about Healy's ability to capture an honest likeness while at the same time discreetly flattering his subject.

James K. Polk, 1846, George P.A. Healy
Brady's photograph of Polk was only the second of a president taken while still in office (Polk's predecessor, John Tyler was the first). And inasmuch as Polk died so soon after entering retirement, only George Healy (discounting Kellogg's feeble attempt) seems to have been the only artist to have painted Polk from life. Historians for several generations tended to minimize Polk's presidency as merely a compromise between the political forces of the North and the South during the tenuous years before the Civil War. He was not a favorite for posthumous portraits. In more recent years, Polk biographers have sized up the magnitude of his achievements and his legacy. “There are three key reasons why James K. Polk deserves recognition as a significant and influential American president,” Walter Borneman wrote. “First, Polk accomplished the objectives of his presidential term as he defined them; second, he was the most decisive chief executive before the Civil War; and third, he greatly expanded the executive power of the presidency, particularly its war powers, its role as commander-in-chief, and its oversight of the executive branch." President Harry S. Truman summarized this view by saying that Polk was "...a great president. Said what he intended to do and did it." Thus most portraits of Polk have been done in recent years.

James Knox Polk,
Chowdhury Gopal
President James K. Polk,
Madame Tussaud's
One of the better recent portraits, is by an artist from India named Chowdhury Gopal (above, left). While obviously based on Healy's 1858 White House portrait, Gopal presents us with a color clarity that marks the work as distinctly modern yet maintaining a careful relationship to the past. And as with several other presidents, the work of the artists at Washington's Madame Tussaud's (above, right) have almost miraculously captured the man three dimensionally, allowing present day photographers to create their own portraits of the former president. The portrait of First Lady Sarah Childress Polk is not her official White House portrait (which apparently doesn't exist), but one by Healy and a subsequent copy (lower-right corner) by Mayna Treanor Avent based upon Healy's work, which may, in fact, be an improvement. In any case, the Healy portrait appears to be badly in need of cleaning and restoration. At the bottom are three contemporary images of Polk, one half-decent, the others...not so much.

Sarah Childress Polk is one of a half-dozen or so First Ladies not
represented in the White House portrait collection.
James K. Polk--artist unknown,
based on the Brady photo.
James K. Polk--artist unknown,
based on the 1846 Healy portrait.
Polk, based (very loosely) on the
Matthew Brady photograph.


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