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Monday, December 28, 2015

Woodrow Wilson Portraits

Woodrow Wilson,  Official White House Portrait, 1936, F. Graham Cootes
Thomas Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President of the United States, was born on this date, in 1856. Many years later, Wilson recalled that his earliest memory was in hearing that Abraham Lincoln had been elected President and that there would be war. Born and raised in rural Virginia, Wilson was a southerner through and through. His parents defended slavery and in fact, owned slaves. His father was a (Southern) Presbyterian minister. Woodrow Wilson began his education in the South at Davidson College in North Carolina, but when his father began teaching at Princeton University, he transferred there. He would one day become president of the New Jersey institution. He was a political science major, later a lecturer, debater, writer, administrator, politician, and a farsighted Democrat, becoming governor of New Jersey in 1910 following a progressive, but turbulent tenure at Princeton, which eventually made the school one of the premier Ivy League schools in the east. After only a brief two years as governor, and thanks entirely to a Republican party split between backers of William Howard Taft and Teddy Roosevelt, Wilson was elected President in 1912 with a mere 41.8% plurality of the popular vote, but a landslide of 435 electoral votes, capturing forty states. It's interesting to note that as rapid as Wilson's rise to power was, his official White House portrait by F. Graham Cootes (top) was not painted until 1936, some fifteen years after he left office and a full twelve years after his death in 1924. Wilson was a controversial President. As a progressive Democrat, in many ways Wilson might be considered the Barack Obama of the 20th century, serving two terms almost exactly one-hundred years before our current President. Many of the political battles he fought would seem quite familiar to us today.
Woodrow Wilson, 1921, Edmund Tarbell, National Portrait Gallery
By way of contrast, Wilson's National Portrait Gallery painting by Edmund Tarbell (above) dates from 1921. It, along with a similar portrait by John Singer Sargent (below, left), dating from 1917, were the two major "official" portraits for which the President posed at the White House. The painting by the Polish artist, Stanislav Rembski (below, right,) was commissioned by Edith Wilson many years later.

The wall map of forming the backdrop for the Rembski portrait reflects the post WW I national boundaries resulting from the Treaty of Versailles, which Wilson helped draft.
Of all the portraits of Wilson, only the posthumous Rembski portrait (above, right) from 1945 is in any way outstanding. The others are all quite traditionally dark in tone, reflecting the impressive magnetism of Wilson's personality rather than the office he held. The Rembski portrait, in contrast, is very much a post-presidency depiction. However, as striking and dynamic as it may be, the Rembski portrait pales in comparison to a 1919 portrait of Wilson by the British artist, Sir William Orpen (below) for whom Wilson posed briefly during his brief time in Paris helping negotiate the Treaty of Versailles, which ended WW I, founded the ill-fated League of Nations, and in its brutal economic reparations imposed upon war-torn Germany, set the stage for the political and social unrest resulting in the rise of Hitler and the onslaught of WW II. Wilson was a strong proponent of the treaty.

Portrait Of Woodrow Wilson, 1919, Sir William Orpen
The Treaty of Versailles failed to pass muster in the Republican controlled U.S. Senate by six votes. Wilson railed against the party claiming: "The trouble with the Republican Party is that it has not had a new idea for thirty years… The Republican Party is still a covert and a refuge for those who are afraid, for those who want to consult their grandfathers about everything." Sound familiar? Wilson mounted an intense public relations speaking tour in support of the treaty. As a direct result of the considerable stress and physical strain, while in Pueblo, Colorado, on September 25, 1919, Wilson collapsed, suffering a stroke from which he never fully recovered. He was totally paralyzed on his left side.

The first wife, Ellen, by Frederic Yates (1906) .and Wilson's second wife, Edith, as seen by
Adolfo Muller-Ury in her official White House portrait dating from sometime after
their marriage but before the end of Wilson's second term.
A little more than a year after entering the White House, Woodrow Wilson's wife, Ellen, suffered from kidney failure as the result of a fall. She died in August 1914. For a little over a year, Wilson was a widower. However, around February of 1915, Wilson met Edith Bolling Galt, an attractive southern widow and jeweler. He fell in love, and in May, proposed marriage. She turned him down; but Wilson was persistent and the courtship continued. Edith gradually warmed to the relationship and they became secretly engaged in the fall of 1915. Many Wilson advisors had become concerned about the appearance of a premature romance so soon after the death of his wife. Nonetheless the engagement was made public in October and they were married on December, 1915.

Woodrow and Edith Wilson, a photo
after the stroke which strongly suggests
her role as, in effect, co-president.
As First Ladies go, Edith Wilson could probably be considered the most powerful woman to ever take up residence in the White House. For more than a year, the remainder of her husband's term in office, she worked nursing him back to some degree of health while, along with his doctor, shielding him from public exposure and the stress involved in his high office. Edith Wilson did not make presidential decisions, but she did have the final say as to what passed before the President--what was important and what was not. At the very least, she became his chief of staff, a powerful position in any administration, but as the Presidents wife still more so. Despite his stroke, which likely hampered his efforts to see ratified the treaty he'd worked so hard to shape, and thus the international peace-keeping organization riding aboard it, Wilson was nonetheless awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919. On February 3, 1924, some three years after leaving office, Wilson died at his home of a stroke and other heart-related problems at age 67. He was buried in Washington National Cathedral, the only president interred in Washington, D.C.

Woodrow Wilson as seen by more recent artists.



  1. Edith Wilson was not Happy that the League of Nations did not pass the vote to become reality. Edith told rembski when he was painting the portrait to include a map of Europe to show how Europe would have looked if The League of Nations had passed. Rembski did so. This little side story is called Ediths Revenge.

  2. Very interesting, thanks for the comment, and thanks for taking the time to read my column.