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Saturday, January 30, 2016

Franklin D. Roosevelt Portraits

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, 32nd President of the United States,
Official White House portrait, 1947, Frank O. Salisbury.

The future president, age ten.
For a second day in a row, we find a former president's birthday. In this case it's Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd President of the United states. He was born on this date, January 30, 1882--134 years ago. He's often considered the third greatest President of all time after Washington and Lincoln. Born into a wealthy Hudson River Valley New York family, Roosevelt's paternal ancestors had become prosperous early on in New York real estate and trade. Much of his immediate family's wealth had been built by FDR's maternal grandfather, Warren Delano, Jr., in the China trade, including opium and tea. An only child, Franklin's mother, Sara was quite possessive of her son. His father was said to have been "remote," though others indicate James Roosevelt interacted with his son more than was typical at the time. From the age of two, his family took him on frequent trips to Europe, which helped their son become conversant in German and French. He learned to ride, shoot, row, play polo, lawn tennis, and took up golf in his teen years.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, National Portrait Gallery, 1945, Douglas Chandor.
In growing up, the boy attended an Episcopal boarding school in Massachusetts where 90% of the students were from families on the social register. He was strongly influenced by its headmaster, Endicott Peabody, who preached the duty of Christians to help the less fortunate. He urged his students to enter public service. Peabody remained a strong influence throughout FDR's life, officiating at his wedding and visiting Roosevelt as president. Peabody recalled Roosevelt as "a quiet, satisfactory boy of more than ordinary intelligence." Classmates described Roosevelt as "nice, but completely colorless." An average student, he stood out in being the only student Democrat, continuing the political tradition of his side of the Roosevelt family. Though many portraits have been painted of FDR over his lifetime, three stand apart. The official White House portrait (top) is by Frank O. Salisbury, and by far the lesser of the lot, notable mostly for the lack of eye contact (a rarity in presidential portraits), thus creating a thoughtful, though distant look in the president's face. The second, by Douglas Chandor (above) is by far the best, utilizing several "mini-portraits' of the president's hands. The drawing in the lower-left corner is a sketch of Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin at the 1945 Yalta Conference. It was originally intended as a preliminary drawing for a larger work, which was never completed because Stalin refused to pose for it (notice the artist's hand, holding a pencil, as if drawing the sketch).

Elizabeth Shoumatoff's portraits of FDR.
The third portrait of the three (above, left) consist of a preliminary watercolor portrait by Elizabeth Shoumatoff, a friend of Lucy Mercer Rutherford, who was a friend of the president. Shoumatoff was working on the portrait of the president around noon on April 12, 1945. Roosevelt was being served lunch when he said "I have a terrific pain in the back of my head." He then slumped forward in his chair, unconscious. The president's cardiologist, diagnosed a massive cerebral hemorrhage (stroke). Roosevelt never regained consciousness and died at 3:35 p.m. that day. Shoumatoff never finished the portrait. Today it hangs at Roosevelt's former health and relaxation retreat in Warm Springs, Georgia, known as the Little White House. Years later, Shoumatoff decided to finish the portrait in FDR's memory. She did a new painting based on her own memory (above, right). She changed the color of his tie from red to blue, but all other aspects are completely identical. The finished portrait also resides in the Legacy Exhibit in Warm Springs beside the original watercolor.

Chandor felt hands revealed a lot about his subjects' personality.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1937,
Donald Armand Luscomb
As sometimes happens, Douglas Chandor's portrait of Roosevelt gained him a commission to also paint First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. This portrait I saw in touring the White House some fifty years ago (back when all you had to do was line up at the East Wing gate). It hung in the main east-west hallway on the first floor at the time, and caught my eye in that I'd never before seen an artist include multiple painted sketches as part of a formal portrait. It was all the more remarkable in being such a attractive likeness of Mrs. Roosevelt, who, let's face it, was not the most photogenic First Lady to ever inhabit the premises. The portrait of FDR (below) by Jacob H. Perskie dates from 1941. Perskie was Roosevelt's official White House photographer who, apparently, was something of a painter as well. The painting now hangs in New York's Hall of Governors in Albany. The very unofficial portrait of Roosevelt (right) is by Donald Armand Luscomb, who entered it in a 1937 contest sponsored by the historic Spreckels Theatre in San Diego. It was exhibited briefly on the mezzanine balcony of the theatre and later displayed in the foyer of the Cabrillo Theater as a tribute to President Roosevelt.

Gubernatorial portrait, ca. 1941, Jacob H. Perskie
The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C., lies next to the tidal basin about halfway between the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials. Congress voted for it in 1955, but it wasn't until twenty-three years later, in 1978 that the design was finally approved. However, the approval came with no appropriation, thus construction did not begin for another sixteen years, in 1994 (typical of Washington politics). The original design did not include an image of Roosevelt (a polio victim) in his wheelchair. The ensuing controversy ended only after the National Organization on Disability raised $1.65 million to add the now-famous bronze sculpture by Robert Graham of Roosevelt in his wheelchair (below).

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1998, Robert Graham.

Incidentally, this marks my 2,000th "Art Now and Then" blog posting.


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