White House Portraits And Painters
( Originally Published 1908 )
PORTRAITS of all the Presidents, from Washington to Roosevelt, may be seen in the White House collection of paintings. The famous portrait of Washington, the one cut from its frame and preserved by Dolly Madison when the cry of "the British are coming" startled the members of the White House family in 1814, previous to the burning of the mansion, is still one of the gems of the collection.
From Washington's time down to that of Buchanan, portraits were made of the Presidents to adorn the White House walls, but all these were made unofficially. It was not till Buchanan's time that Presidential portraits were made officially, that is, by act of Congress. In 1857 Congress passed an act whereby a committee was authorized to collect a series of portraits of the Presidents to be preserved in the White House.
Congress made it a condition that not more than one thousand dollars "shall be paid for any full length portrait." Five portraits were purchased by the committee in 1858, for which five thousand dollars were paid. Since that time portraits have been added to the White House collection in each administration both by gift of private citizen and by Congress, but only those authorized by Congress are pointed to today as the "official" portraits.
As far back as Jackson's time, artists and sculptors sought to obtain permission to make portraits and busts of the Nation's Chief Executive. Of Jackson's experience in this connection while at the White House, it is related that he lived so much on the frontiers before he was President that he seemed to have had little experience with artists, if one may judge from the fact that he asked Mr. Powers, the sculptor, how he was getting along with his portraits, meaning busts.
Jackson's daguerreotype was taken, we are told, at the Hermitage, in the spring of 1845, at which time he was already a confirmed invalid. Against the positive advice of his physician he persisted in gratifying the wishes of those who had come so far to take his picture. "On the morning appointed he caused himself to be dressed with special care, and sat bolstered up with pillows and cushions. When the moment came when he should sit still he moved himself up with the same energy that had characterized his life, and his eye was stern and fixed and full of fire. The task accomplished, he relapsed into his comparatively helpless condition."
Roosevelt as a "Sitter"
President Roosevelt has sat for a number of portraits, busts and medals, the artists including such famous members of the fraternity as John S. Sargent. A sitting was given in 1908, by Mr. Roosevelt, to Victor D. Brenner, a sculptor, who was intrusted with the mission of designing a medal as a reward for faithful workers on the Panama Canal. In speaking of his experience with President Roosevelt, he said :
"I have never had a more interesting task, because Mr. Roosevelt has a remarkable face and a profile that is very difficult to get. In studying his face one gets an idea of the man's remarkable force and activity. His features and the outlines of his face are constantly changing, no matter how hard he may strive to remain in repose. In the sitting today I endeavored to get those lines that show Mr. Roosevelt's force and strength, and gave less attention to the portrait as a whole. I shall first make the medal nearly life size and then reduce it to the permanent form."
McKinley Sits for the "Court Painter"
President McKinley was one of the most obliging of Presidents in the matter of sitting for his portraits. Among those who perpetuated Mr. McKinley on canvas is Mr. Charles Ayer Whipple, who, because of the large number of portraits he has painted of tenants of the White House, is called "the Court Painter'." In speaking of his best portrait of Mr. McKinley, Mr. Whipple once said;
"My portrait of Mr. McKinley, represents the President standing beside his handsome carved desk, with his hand upon the document declaring peace with Spain, the pose being such that the signature on the paper is visible. The size of the canvas is five feet wide and eight feet high. With the President in heroic size. The proportions are accurately preserved, so that the fact that the picture is larger than the man in the flesh, will not be noticed when the painting is placed in its proper place in a large and lofty room.
"The President is a most satisfactory model. When he poses he poses, and goes into the business in a business like way. He has a face which is beautiful in its strength. The lines in that face are so good that the stronger I make them the better the likeness."
It appears that the sittings for Mr. Whipple varied in length from fifteen minutes to an hour and a half, and that they were held in the Pink Room, one of the President's private offices. Whenever Mrs. McKinley was present, the sitting was passed pleasantly in conversation. When the "First Lady" of the land was not there, the President smoked, while Mr. Whipple made the best of the few minutes allowed him before the coming of a messenger announcing that this or that member of the Cabinet was waiting outside to speak with the "Chief." The President often said that he found pleasure in posing, saying that instead of proving irksome, as he had feared, he found it a period of relaxation.
Artist Carpenter Lives With President Lincoln
Mr. F. B. Carpenter, an artist of note, was long a guest within the White House, while painting the picture of Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation. He afterward wrote a book entitled Six Months in the White House, in which he refers to an incident connected with the signing of the great proclamation, which occurred on New Year's Day, 1863. Says Mr. Carpenter:
"The roll containing the Emancipation Proclamation was taken to Mr. Lincoln at noon on the first day of January, 1863, by Secretary Seward and his son Frederick. As it lay unrolled before him, Mr. Lincoln took a pen, dipped it in ink, moved his hand to the place for the signature, held it a moment and dropped the pen. After a little hesitation he again took up the pen and went through the same movement as before. Mr. Lincoln then turned to Mr. Seward, and said : `I have been shaking hands since nine o'clock this morning, and my right arm is almost paralyzed'. If my name ever goes into history it will be for this act and my whole soul is in it. If my hand trembles when I sign the Proclamation, all who examine the document hereafter will say : `He hesitated'.
"He then turned to the table, took up the pen again, and slowly, firmly wrote that `Abraham Lincoln' with which the whole world is now familiar. He looked up and smiled : `That will do."
"The President remarked to Mr. Colfax the same evening that the signature appeared somewhat tremulous and uneven. `Not', said he, `because of any uncertainty or hesitation on my part; but it was just after the public reception, and three hours' hand-shaking is not calculated to improve a man's chirography'."
Further comments by Mr. Carpenter tell how President Lincoln received the salute of the White House guards and refer to a reception held by Mr. Lincoln at the White House in February, 1864:
"Whenever he appeared in the portico, on his way to or from the War or Treasury Department, or on any excursion down the avenue, the first glimpse of him was, of course, the signal for the sentinel on duty to `present arms'. This was always acknowledged by Mr. Lincoln with a peculiar bow and touch of the hat, no matter how many times it might occur in the course of a day ; and it always seemed to me that it was quite as much of a compliment on his part to the devotion of the soldiers, as it was the sign of duty and deference on the part of the guard.
"I was told that the President would be present at a reception in February, 1864.. So I determined then to make myself known to him. Two o'clock found me one of the throng pressing towards the centre of attraction, the Blue Room. From the threshold of the Crimson Parlor, as I passed, I had a glimpse of the gaunt figure of Mr. Lincoln in the distance, haggard looking, dressed in black, relieved only by the prescribed white gloves ; standing, it seemed to me, solitary and alone, though surrounded by the crowd, bending low now and then in the process of hand-shaking, and responding half abstractedly to the well meant greetings of the miscellaneous assemblage.
"It was soon my privilege, in the regular succession to take that honored hand. Accompanying the act, my name and profession was announced to him in a low tone by one of the assistant private secretaries who stood by his side. Retaining my hand, he looked at me inquiringly for an instant, and said : `Oh, yes ; I know this is the painter'. Then straightening himself to his full height, with a twinkle of the eye, he added playfully: `Do you think, Mr. Carpenter, that you can make a handsome picture of me'? emphasizing very strongly the last word of the sentence.
"Somewhat confused at this point-blank shot, uttered in a tone so loud as to attract the attention of those in immediate proximity, I made a random reply, and took the occasion to ask if I could see him in his study at the close of the reception. To this he responded in the peculiar venacular of the West: `I recon', resuming meanwhile the mechanical and traditional exercise of the hand which no President has ever been able to avoid, and which, severe as is the ordeal, is likely to attach to the position as long as the Republic endures.
Portraits in the Home of the President
One of the rarest collections of portraits in the country is that of the Presidents and their wives and other members of their families that hangs in the White House. These historical pictures adorn various parts of the building, though the largest number are to be seen on the walls of the three rooms known as the State Suite,namely, the Red, Green and Blue Parlors and the main floor corridor. In these three rooms alone hang twenty-two Presidential portraits.
Three different portraits of President Roosevelt may be seen in the White House—by Sargent, Chartran and Encke. The celebrated painting of Washington, now hanging over the mantel-piece in the Red Parlor, was painted by an Englishman, previous to the war of 1812.
Pictures in Various Rooms
In President McKinley's time, the Red Room, with walls and hangings of Pompeiian red, was the family sitting room, and was used for receptions by the ladies of the President's household. The portraits of John Quincy Adams, Van Buren, Taylor, Buchanan, Arthur (by Huntington), Cleveland (by Eastman Johnson), and Harrison, all were hung in this one room up to the time of the remodeling of the White House in 1902.
At the same time the Green Room was used for a music room, and here were portraits of Angelica Singleton Van Buren, who was mistress of the White House during President Van Buren's term; Mrs. Tyler and Mrs. Polk (presented by the ladies of Tennessee in President Arthur's administration) ; Mrs. Hayes (by Huntington), presented by the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, in recognition of the cold water régime of the White House during President Hayes' term, and Mrs. Harrison (by Huntington) presented by the Daughters of the American Revolution.
The main corridor at that time was lighted by the glow of a jeweled glass screen and was adorned with palms and pictures, and mirrors and marbles. Here hung portraits of Presidents Washington (by a Spanish artist, and sent from Ecuador), Jackson, Polk, Tyler, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan, Grant, Hayes and Garfield ; and here were the busts of Columbia, Americus Vespucius, John Jay, Fillmore and John Bright (presented by Bright to Lincoln).
With the remodeling of the White House in 1902, some changes were made in the hanging of the portraits in respect to the rooms selected for the pictures to adorn. For example, in the Red, Green and Blue parlors today hang no portraits except those of Presidents and the ladies of the White House. In the Red Room may be .seen the portraits of Washington, John Quincy Adams, Madison, Monroe, General Grant, Taylor, Jefferson and Mrs. Washington. The last named picture, that of Mrs. Washington, was painted by E. F. Andrews as late as 1884, the artist using an engraving for the purpose.
In the Green Room hang portraits of Presidents Hayes, Pierce, Buchanan, Jackson, Van Buren, W. H. Harrison, Lincoln and Johnson, and another of John Quincy Adams. Of the Buchanan portrait it is said that there was long delay by Congress in having it made. The picture was never satisfactory to Mrs. Harriet Lane Johnson, and a short time before her death she presented the picture of her uncle which now grace the White House.
In the private dining-room hangs a portrait of John Tyler, while in the corridor the visitor finds portraits of Arthur, Cleveland, Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, McKinley and Roosevelt.
Portraits of the "First Ladies"
A dozen or more portraits of the mistresses of the White House may be seen within its walls. Mrs. Roosevelt's portrait, of which mention has already been made, was given to the Nation by the people of France. It is that wellknown picture in which Mrs. Roosevelt is shown sitting outdoors and wearing a white dress, black coat, white chiffon scarf and a black Gainsborough hat. The portico of the White House may be discerned in the background the portico on the south of the building.
In the Lower Corridor may be seen portraits of the young bride of President Tyler; also of Mrs. Van Buren, Jr., Mrs. Hayes, Mrs. Polk and Mrs. Benjamin Harrison.
Nearly all the portraits of the mistresses of the White House were presented by private donors, and so far as known none of them were paid for by any Congressional appropriation.
The finest portrait of the entire collection showing the ladies of the Presidents' home, is that by Theobald Chartran, of which mention has been made as being the gift of the Republic of France.
Two of the portraits of the ladies are mentioned at length in an article in Munsey's Magazine, these being the pictures of Mrs. Polk and of Martin Van Buren's daughter-in-law, Mrs. Major Van Buren. Of these, the following facts are given in the article in question :
"Among them is the likeness of Mrs. James K. Polk, which receives a good deal of admiration from visitors, and which deserves attention because of its elaborate costume, representing, as it does, the mode which prevailed in the early forties. Mrs. Polk, who was a very handsome woman, is represented as wearing a gown of crimson velvet and velvet snood with drooping pink feathers, while her neck is encircled by a string of pearls.
This picture was given to the White House collection by the women of Tennessee, but there is no official record as to the painter.
"In the matter of costume, perhaps the most striking likeness is that of Mrs. Major Van Buren, as she is styled on the tablet underneath the picture. Her husband was President Van Buren's son, and she herself was, before marriage, Miss Angelica Singleton, of South Carolina. She, too, was a beautiful woman; but she is attired in a manner which is in curious contrast to the fashion of the present day. She wears a plumed headdress that is striking in the extreme. Nevertheless, a close inspection shows that the costume is really very dainty. The dress is of white mull, and the little lace-trimmed sleeves are caught up with tiny pink rosebuds. Her handkerchief, however, makes one smile because of its unusual size and strange texture. One might very easily take it for a towel or for a shawl.