Click on photos to enlarge.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

James Buchanan Portraits

Official White House portrait, James Buchanan, William Merritt Chase
Today is April 23rd. Two-hundred and fifteen years ago today (in 1791) the fifteenth President of the United States was born in a log cabin near Cove Gap, (south-central) Pennsylvania, just north of the border with Maryland. If you're relatively unfamiliar with American Presidents, it might be helpful to mention that James Buchanan is often listed among the top two or three worst presidents in the history of this country. He's also the first and only bachelor president as well as the only one thought by some to have been gay; though there's only a little circumstantial evidence on that point--never any proof. In all fairness, Buchanan suffers from two more factors held against him, first that he failed to stop the American Civil War (as if anyone could have); and that he suffers in comparison to the man who followed him, often listed as the best president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln.
James Buchanan, G.P.A. Healy
Whether or not Buchanan was gay or deserves the title "worst President of the United States" is largely immaterial. There were several other candidates for that title about that time, not to mention two or three in the 20th century. Suffice to say that Buchanan was a very mediocre president and a relatively mediocre man as well, a compromise presidential candidate who would never have come even close to the White House had it not been for the political compromises forced upon the Democratic Party due to the looming inevitability of the Civil War. Even his portraits, though painted by reputable artist of the time, are quite mediocre. The official White House portrait (top) is by the famed William Merritt Chase while that which hangs in Washington's National Portrait Gallery (above) is by G.P.A. Healy, painter of seven other presidents, and a pope. His portrait of Buchanan may not be his worst effort but certainly ranks well below that of his most famous subject Abraham Lincoln (again).

The Buchanan-Breckinridge campaign
poster of 1856. The Republican Party in
its infancy, ran John C. Fremont.
Of the two portrait mediocrities, that of Healy is the less mediocre. Chase's effort is somber and ghostly, of such low contrast in bodily presence one might guess the artist was trying to cover up a lack of competence in that regard. (He wasn't; Chase was quite com-petent in depicting anatomy.) Buchanan appears ill at ease. as well he should have been (and was) with the political turmoil swirling about him. Healy's portrait, on the other hand, while reasonably adept, cast Buchanan with his hand resting on what appear to be maps with a slightly bemused expression on his face, as to suggest he was totally out of his element in being President. If Healy was attempting to convey that impres-sion, he succeeded quite well. Before Buch-anan left office in March of 1861, a total of seven southern states had left the Union, all of which were in thinly disguised rebellion. Buchanan made no effort whatsoever to combat the rapidly deteriorating situation.

Buchanan on the road to the White House, the bottom-left dating from 1842.
The bottom-right portrait is undoubtedly long after Buchanan's death in 1868.
Being unmarried, and thus having no wife to serve as First Lady, that role fell to his attractive young niece, Harriet Lane (no relation), whom he had adopted as an orphan. One of the interesting ironies having to do with Buchanan's presidency is that his young niece has since had two navel Vessels named for her (below), a steam frigate, the U.S.S. Harriet Lane, and the present-day Coast Guard Cutter, Harriet Lane. Buchanan, on the other hand, has had none named for him.

A deliberate affront to President Buchanan?
If history and its circumstances have been unkind to James Buchanan, the photos of him taken by the preeminent photographer of his time, Matthew Brady (below) demonstrate quite starkly the equally unkind dissipating effects just four years living in the White House had upon the man's face. He would appear to have been at least a two-term president. In leaving office, Buchanan is said to have left a note for his successor:
"If you are as happy in entering the White House as I shall feel on returning to Wheatland, you are a happy man." --James Buchanan
Buchanan never really wanted to become president, but had the job foisted upon him by the
Democratic Party kingmakers anxious to avoid a party split. His face after four years in office
reflects that fact.

Wheatland, James Buchanan's gracious home near
Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he died on June 1, 1868.

Rapid City, SD, bronze of James Buchanan,
2007, James Michael Maher. The pose, his hands
behind his back, was intended to make him
appear indecisive.

1 comment: