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Saturday, December 5, 2015

Martin Van Buren Portraits

Martin Van Buren, official White House portrait, 1858, G.P.A. Healy
Martin Van Buren's National Portrait Gallery
image is also by G.P.A. Healy based heavily
on his full-length portrait done earlier.
It's time to celebrate the birthday of another American President you've probably never (or seldom) heard of. On this date in 1782, was born, the first future President born in the United States of America--Martin Van Buren. He would have been 232 years old today, December 5, 2015. He was our eighth President, serving a single term from 1837 to 1841. Van Buren was a Democrat, though any party affiliation now would bear little resemblance to political philosophy then. Today he would probably be considered a Republican and pos-sibly a rather conservative one at that. He was against the annexation of Texas into the Union and had the misfortune of ushering in an econ-omic downturn which has come to be known as the Panic of 1837. He was turned out of office by the election of William Henry Harrison, who died a month into his term. So Van Buren's real successor was Harrison's Vice President, John Tyler. Van Buren's official White House portrait (above) was painted by George Peter Alexander Healy in 1858, long after Van Buren left office but before his death in 1862. His National Portrait Gallery image (above, left) was also painted by Healy some years later.

Matthew Brady's photo portrait of Van Buren and a moderately successful digital
colorization of the image. The color version would never be mistaken for a
G.P.A. Healy painted portrait, but it better than such efforts in years past.
Martin Van Buren came to the White House shortly before the time photography came of age as a viable portrait media; but he lived long enough to be among the earliest former Presidents (along with John Quincy Adams) to be photographed well and often. His most commonly encountered photographic image was by the famed Civil War photographer Matthew Brady (above) dating from between 1855 and 1858. Although I'm not fond of the modern practice of colorizing historic photos (or movies) the computer software has come a long way in allowing improvements in the arts and sciences of the practice as seen in the two juxtaposed images above. Although the pose is different, I suspect Healy's head, face, and expression may well have been based on Brady's photograph. Even the angle is the same.

A bright, handsome, star rising from New York politics in the early 1830s.
In much the same way as they are today, a politician in the 1830s had great need of a suitably heroic (or at least self-confident) public image. The portrait artist, engravers, and later, photographers were vital importance in establishing and maintaining this political persona. Even as a young man, Van Buren seems to have been quite aware of this need as witnessed by the painted portrait by John Sartain (above, right) and the color print by Ezra Ames both from the early 1830s when he was President Andrew Jackson's right-hand man, serving as Secretary of State and later Vice President, while positioning himself politically to be Jackson's handpicked successor. The Ames Mezzoprint, image was based upon an 1840 portrait by Henry Inman (below, top-left).

Martin Van Buren as seen by Henry Inman, Shepherd Alonzo Mount, Daniel Huntington,
and Francis Alexander. You can almost watch as Van Buren grows older. The
Alexander portrait today hangs in the Red Room of the White House.
Said to be Van Buren by John Langendoerffer
the painting is likely one of Van Buren's sons.
Van Buren seems to have enjoyed posing for painters both before and after leaving the White House judging by the number of portrait images I found from quite a number of popular artist of the time. However, the portrait at left, by John Langendoerffer, said to be of the former President, painted in 1838 at the age of fifty-six, is probably one of Van Buren's four sons. Although the age and date coincide, Van Buren appears too young for that period. Also, the likeness does not measure up well against Van Buren's many other painted portraits. Nonetheless, the portrait today hangs in Washington's National Portrait Gallery. Van Buren entered the White House a widower. Hannah (below, left), his wife of twelve years, died in 1819 after having bourn him six children (five sons and one daughter). Only their four sons survived to adulthood. Angelica Singleton Van Buren (below, right), the very attractive wife of Van Buren's oldest son, Abraham, became the stand-in first lady.

Van Buren's wife, Hannah, and daughter-in-law Angelica.
Bust of Martin Van Buren,
1836-40, Hiram Powers
The carved bust in the painting of Angelica (above, right) is that of her father-in-law the President. Today it occupies an honored spot in the red room of the White House (right) opposite the 1842 portrait of his daughter-in-law by Henry Inman. Rapid City, South Dakota, calling itself the "City of Presidents" has a bronze, seated image of the eighth President by Edward Hlavka (below) that's somewhat more natural and lifelike than Powers' marble carving, though not so much as compared to the life-size wax version at Madame Tussaud's in Washington, D.C. (below, right).

Martin Van Buren by Edward Hlavka
Martin Van Buren, courtesy of
Madame Tussaud's


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