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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Ulysses S. Grant Portraits

Official White House Portrait Ulysses S. Grant, 1875,
By German-born artist, Henry Ulke
It's time we honor yet another President of the United States on his birthday, today April 27th. On this date in 1822, the eighteenth President of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant was born in Point Pleasant, Ohio, on the banks of the Ohio River about twenty-five miles southeast of Cincinnati. Although Grant was a two-term president (who could have been elected for a third term if he'd chosen to run), he is best remembered as the one general of the U.S. Army who, more than anyone else, won the Civil War. In fact, few would argue that Grant was a much better general than he was president. Moreover, he was a much better general than any other of the many professions he pursued in trying to support his wife and four children. At one time or another Grant tried his hand at farming, horse training, selling firewood, managing real estate, store clerking, and even art. While a student at West Point, Grant studied under the Romantic artist Robert Walter Weir. There are nine works by Grant in existence. Two are pictured below.

Grant painted exclusively in watercolor and was quite
proud of his expertise with a brush.
After learning to paint at West Point in 1843, Grant spent the next eleven years in the army as a quartermaster, seeing combat during the Mexican War. After the war, married to Julia Dent Grant with a growing family, Grant became bored with the tedium of the peace time army, so in 1854 he resigned his commission to try his hand at farming, and several other civilian pursuits, none of which he was very good at. Then, on April 12, 1861, Grant was saved from a tiresome life as a store clerk in his family's leather store in Galena, Missouri, by the firing on Ft. Sumter and the start of the Civil War. Two days later, Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to fight the war. Grant was one of them, along with the regiment of Missouri volunteers he helped recruit. Initially assigned the rank of Colonel, by May, Lincoln had promoted Grant to Brigadier General (one star). His National Portrait Gallery painting by Ole Peter Hansen Balling depicts Grant (below) in the uniform of a four-star general (a rank created by Congress specifically for him). It dates from around 1865 when Grant was at the height of his popularity.

Ulysses S. Grant, National Portrait Gallery, 1865, Ole Peter Hansen Balling
Grant's wartime exploits and dramatic victories are far to numerous and complex to relate here. It's a measure of his heroic popularity that every artist and his brother-in-law wanted Grant to sit for a portrait. Being something of an artist himself, the retired general had little else better to do so he accommodated them. The results, demonstrating a wide range of talent, can be seen below. Compare them to the official White House portrait of President Grant (top) by the German-born artist, Henry Ulke, painted in 1875, late in Grant's second term.

Painted by mostly unknown artist (except as noted), each portrait depicts Grant the general, not Grant the President. His presidency was lackluster at best, plagued by numerous scandals with which Grant was unable to cope.
Ulysses S. Grant was president from 1869 to 1877, the Reconstruction era in the South, the beginning of the Gilded Age in the North. His wife, Julia, it would be safe to say, enjoyed his presidency much more than did her husband. He may be the only president in the history of the country that did not campaign for the office. Instead he sat on his front porch in Galena, Missouri, and simply waited for the nation to elect him--which it did, overwhelmingly. Grant won the 1868 election by 300,000 votes out of 5,716,082 votes cast, receiving an electoral college landslide, of 214 votes to his opponent's 80. At the age of 46, Grant was (at the time) the youngest president ever elected. Julia Grant's eight years as First Lady were filled with formal dinners, which had as many as twenty-nine courses, as well as state receptions. Few families have ever "enjoyed" the White House more.

Although her husband had his portrait painted often, Julia Grant seems to have been one of the few First Ladies to have avoided the painter's brush. The date of the rather amateurish dual portrait (above-left) is unknown. That of Lyle Tayson, bottom-left) is not.
The Grants brought with them to the White House four children, Frederick Dent Grant, born in 1850, Ulysses S. Grant, Jr., born in 1852, Ellen Wrenshall (Nellie) Grant, born in 1855, and Jesse Root Grant, born 1858. The eldest, Frederick, would have been nineteen when his father became president. The youngest, Jesse, would have been fourteen. Occupied by four teenagers, (three of them boys) the White House must have been a lively place at the time. Julia Grant certainly did her part, hosting lavish dinners and frequent parties during what she termed "the happiest period" of her life. With Cabinet wives as her allies, she entertained extensively and extravagantly. Contemporaries recall her fine dresses, jewels, silks, and laces. Upon leaving the White House in 1877, the Grants made a trip around the world that became a journey of triumphs. In later years, Julia proudly recalled details of hospitality and magnificent gifts they received.

A Grant family photo, probably taken around 1865.
Grant's Tomb, Riverside Park,
New York City.
The period following the Grant family's round-the-world jaunt was a sad, murky one for the general and former president. Long a connoisseur of fine (and some not-so-fine) cigars, Grant was suffering from throat cancer. A series of Wall Street debacles left the family virtually destitute, often living off the charity of longtime friends. Only a lucrative contract to write his wartime memoirs saved the family fortunes. The book, Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, was a critical and com-mercial success. In the end, Julia Grant received about $450,000 in royalties (a huge sum at the time). The memoir has been highly regarded by the public, military historians, and literary critics. Grant portrayed himself in the persona of the honorable Western hero, whose strength lies in his honesty and straight-forwardness. He candidly depicted his battles against both the Confederates and internal army foes. Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) called the Memoirs a "literary masterpiece." Grant died in June 1885, just days after scribbling the final notes of his memoirs. He and his wife are buried in the largest private mausoleum in the United States, located in a New York City Park overlooking the Hudson River (above, left).
An illustrated history of Ulysses S. Grant's military service, 1843-1965.

General Ulysses Grant Statue,
John Lopez, Rapid City, SD


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