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Monday, November 2, 2015

Warren G. Harding Portraits

Warren G. Harding Official White House Portrait, 1922, Edmund Hodgson Smart
Edmund Hodgson Smart with his
portrait of the president.
When I started this series dealing with portraits of the President of the United States, I did not anticipate that two of them might have been born on the same day of the month. However, that seems to be the case with Presidents, Warren G. Harding and James K. Polk. Both were born on the second day of November some seventy years apart. I've decided that the solution to this would be to take them in alphabetical order, dealing with Harding today and Polk tomorrow. Sorry if this seems like presidential overkill, but stand by; later this month we find that two presidents were born on two consecutive days of the month (November 23rd and 24th). Warren G. Harding was born on this date in 1865. He was the 29th president, his term running from March, 1921, until his death from a heart sudden heart attack in August, 1923. His official White House portrait (above) is by the British paint-er, Edmund Hodgson Smart (left), dating from 1922.

Warren G. Harding, Margaret Lindsey Williams,
1923, National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.
Warren G. Harding has sometimes been referred to as the "worst president ever." I'll not get into a protracted discussion of ineptitude, dirty politics, or presidential scandals, but suffice to say that just below the surface, and carefully concealed until after Harding's death, there was plenty of each. It was the 1920s, remember. Of course, Smart's dark, staid, dignified portrait re-veals none of the above, presenting a very "presidential" personage that this former Marion, Ohio, newspaperman was not prepared to fill. Likewise, Harding's portrait by Margaret Lindsay Williams (right), now in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., is no more revealing, though somewhat warmer in tone. Both portraits present a presidential image, as did Harding himself, but one in which the man was never comfortable. He came to the presidency as a dark horse compromise, a former governor and former senator, but a man ill-equipped to confront the corruption and political turmoil swirling around him following his landslide victory in the general election of 1920.

Margaret Lindsay Williams' painting of Warren G. Harding
The Welsh portrait artist, Margaret Lindsay Williams (above) is the first woman artist to see her work in Washington, D.C.'s National Portrait Gallery of Presidents and one of only three women artist to be represented there (along with Greta Kempton and Elaine de Kooning). Her portrait of Harding (for which I could not find a decent high-resolution image) would seem, in my judgment, to equal or even surpass that of her fellow Brit whose painting of President Harding now hangs in the White House. Inasmuch as Harding died having served less than half his term, and most unofficial portraits of a president are painted after he leaves office, there are few of those to pick from. One of the better ones is a drawing by Walter Tittle (below, left) dating from around 1921-22. Perhaps the best likeness of the 29th president is neither a painting nor drawing, but the life size wax portrayal (below, right) by the folks at Madame Tussaud's at their Washington, D.C. museum.

President Warren G. Harding,
1921-22, Walter Tittle
The Warren G. Harding found
at Madame Tussaud's.

The portrait of First Lady Florence Harding (below), which hangs in the White House, is unique in that it is by an unknown artist. Likewise, the amateur unofficial portrait of her husband (bottom) is also by an unknowns well it should be.

Florence Harding, 1923, unknown artist

An unofficial presidential portrait of
Warren G. Harding by an unknown artist.
(There's something about the jaw that's not quite right.)


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