As I scrolled through the White House Historical Association website to learn more about the history of presidential portraits through the years, I was intrigued by the different ways the presidents have been presented. Some of the following presidents oversaw the most consequential moments in this country’s history, moments that still leave a mark on us all today. Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s portraits in particular offer a glimpse into the time periods of these men, and who they were as people.
According to the White House Historical Association, presidential portraits are a tradition that began with the famed painting of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart. It is now an established precedent to have an official portrait of each occupant of the Oval Office.
The 3rd president of the United States, serving from 1801 to 1809, is best known for his contributions as a Founding Father and his politics in establishing America on the national stage. He penned the Declaration of Independence, was an accomplished architect, a philosopher, advocate for liberty and human rights, Enlightenment thinker and ambassador for the young, new nation. He engaged in fierce political discourse, served under both the Washington and Adams administrations, and even cemented his legacy in the musical “Hamilton.”
During Jefferson’s presidency, he is known for purchasing the Louisiana territory and pursuing a policy of westward expansion by endorsing explorers like Lewis and Clark.
Aside from politics, he was a keen participant of the Enlightenment movement, which originated in Europe in the 18th century. During this time, the individual human was elevated to a new level and was empowered by the strength of their own mind. Science, order and the challenges of antiquated social structures dominated philosophical clubs and societies. Jefferson designed his own home, named Monticello, in Virginia according to the classical themes of symmetry and balance.
His portrait was painted in 1800 by Rembrandt Peale. In keeping with the artistic style of the time, Jefferson seems to dissolve into the shadows, his face gently illuminated from the glow of a nearby candle. He is presented as a pensive thinker with a glare that looks out towards the distance. There is an air of mystery to the painting, fitting to the complicated individual who wrote that “all men are created equal,” yet owned plantations with slaves.
Thomas Jefferson died on July 4, 1826 at the age of 83. The point of interest to mention is that this was the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. He and John Adams, a lifelong adversary, friend and fellow Founding Father, died on the same day.
The 26th president of the United States was known for his eccentric character, fierce passion and appetite for life. Roosevelt began his journey in life as a frail, sickly child, whose asthma would get the best of him. His family took him to the outdoors, where he pursued an intense physical routine as means to achieve health. He was an avid environmentalist and an accomplished scholar. He attended Harvard University, and as an undergraduate he wrote a voluminous book on the War of 1812.
He entered the political arena of New York in the 1880s where he made a name for himself by standing up to mass corruption. He established himself as a man of principle and authority, which, paired with his ambition, pushed him to become the Governor of New York in 1899.
In the year 1901 he served as vice president to President William McKinley; however, McKinley was assassinated that same year, which propelled Roosevelt into the Oval Office. He served as president from 1901 to 1909. During his term, he expanded the National Parks System, established the Square Deal, created the Food and Drug Administration, went after monopolies and enacted trust busts that increased regulation.
The story of his portrait is an interesting one. There were two versions of the official portrait, with the first being painted in 1903 by artist Théobald Chartran. In a word, Roosevelt despised the painted version of himself. His family and close friends secretly called the painting “the meowing cat” because of the dainty and light way Roosevelt was portrayed, instead of as the man of vigor that others saw him as. Eventually, the portrait was stashed away in the attic of the White House until it was finally destroyed. That same year, Roosevelt called in another painter, John Singer Sargent, to give it another go. Both men found this to be a tiring task. Roosevelt was a man who kept busy and demanded movement, while Sargent demanded stillness to find an ideal location as the backdrop for the portrait. They walked through the White House, paused in rooms and tried different poses until finally the line snapped for Roosevelt, who said that Sargent was indecisive. Sargent’s reply was that the President did not know how to pose properly, at which point Roosevelt turned around, held onto a stair post and shouted, “don’t I!” Sargent received his desired pose, and Roosevelt regained his patience. The president would only allow himself to stand still for the painting for 30 minutes (at most) a day–but in the end, Roosevelt was more than satisfied with the portrait, writing in a letter, “I like his picture immensely.”
In the painting, Roosevelt stands as a proud man with one hand on his hip and the other on the post, which can be interpreted as a symbol of stability. The quick white and gold background gives us a glimpse into the mind of Teddy Roosevelt–always moving and never static. There were shades and levels to his thoughts which blended into an inspiring character to study for all of posterity. This is a portrait of a man who achieved plenty and can be confident in his legacy.
Roosevelt died in 1919 at the age of 60. Thomas R. Marshall famously said, “Death had to take Roosevelt sleeping, for if he had been awake, there would have been a fight.”
Franklin Delano Roosevelt
The 32nd president of the United States is one with the most notable career as president. As a relative of Teddy Roosevelt, he was elected into a whopping four-term presidency, led the country out of the Great Depression and (almost) saw it through World War II.
He led the US through one of the most turbulent times in our history. Coming out of the 1920s and into the ‘30s, the U.S. was going through the greatest economic depression ever seen, with massive unemployment, rising poverty and increasing social instability. Roosevelt implemented a sweeping amount of legislation that was meant to bring the economy back to its feet, it was called the New Deal. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Roosevelt declared the U.S.’s entrance into the Second World War. He supervised the American mobilization of arms, the D-Day attacks and oversaw the development of the atomic bomb.
At 39, FDR was diagnosed with polio. He tried desperately to hide his medical condition from the American public, fearing it may make him appear weak. Photographs of him in a wheelchair were prohibited. Famously, at the Yalta Conference in 1945 with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin, the men were all asked to sit for the photo-op so as not to embarrass FDR or make him appear smaller than the two other men.
Roosevelt’s portrait, painted in 1947 by Frank O. Salisbury shows him in a pensive state, as one would expect from a man leading a broken nation into the battle of a lifetime. His features are highlighted by the contrasting light of his black suit and dark background. He appears ready for a briefing from his generals or perhaps new advances (or losses) in the Pacific sphere. That look of determination was what the American people needed in order to see them through the crisis, and it gave them the necessary push to rediscover their American spirit that was lost for so long in the hunger and uncertainty of the Great Depression.
Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945 at the age of 63, from an intracerebral hemorrhage. He passed away almost less than a month before the victory of Europe Day, marking the end of the five year war in the European sphere, on May 8, 1945.
Portraiture is a unique form in understanding a subject and time period. It offers the viewer an intimate look at a person from the artist’s rendition. There is something more mysterious about oil paints on canvas, yet portraits are often made of individuals whose lives are transparent to us, their secrets revealed by history. We can have many photographs of a man such as FDR, or none whatsoever, as is the case with Jefferson; yet, in each case, the portrait reveals to us each man’s own desired mark on history.