Presidential Portraits Go On Tour


Monday, September 11th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


WASHINGTON (AP) — George Washington got tired of all the people who wanted to paint his portrait and threatened to quit posing. A supporter of Abraham Lincoln sent an artist with instructions to improve the candidate's looks, for campaign purposes.

After 41 chief executives in a little more than 200 years, there are as many stories as there are portraits.

The National Portrait Gallery is sending a collection of presidential images — all 41 presidents from Washington to Bill Clinton — on a three-year, coast-to-coast tour. The first stop will be the George Bush Presidential Library at College Station, Texas, beginning Oct. 6.

The Washington art museum is closed for renovation for the next three years and the portraits are being carefully crated for shipment.

President Clinton is the only chief executive represented in the show by a photograph and Fred Voss, the gallery's historian, said he hopes it eventually will obtain a painted portrait.

Centuries ago, Oliver Cromwell, a British head of state, is said to have insisted on being painted ``warts and all.''

That's not the rule followed by most of the artists who painted America's chief executives.

For example, Richard Nixon's famous five o'clock shadow doesn't appear in his small portrait by Norman Rockwell.

Although Lyndon Johnson called his image by Peter Hurd the ugliest thing he ever saw, Voss said the president didn't explain why he thought so. Hurd's Johnson will be going on the tour. To some it looks flattering.

Washington is shown in a portrait done many years after his death by Rembrandt Peale, who had painted him from life but wanted a heroic image for the ages.

Many of Washington's portrayers tended to idealize the nation's hero.

Voss said the head of Washington by French sculptor Jean Houdon may come closest to what he actually looked like. The gallery has a cast of Houdon's work, but it is not among the 61 paintings, prints and sculptures on the tour.

Houdon worked from a ``life mask,'' usually obtained by molding plaster around the subject's face while he breathed through straws pushed up his nostrils. Casts could be made from the plaster after it was removed and hardened.

That flattering but unpleasant experience may have colored Washington's attitude toward artists.

But he also grew irritated by the sheer number of people who wanted to paint him, and said in a letter to a friend, ``I have resolved to sit no more for any of them.''

By Andrew Jackson's time 30 years later, portraits were being used in campaign literature. ``Jackson had an artist friend — Ralph E.W. Earle — living in the White House with him,'' Voss said.

A Republican stalwart sent artist John Henry Brown to do a portrait after Lincoln won the GOP nomination in 1860. Brown's instructions were to make the candidate appear as good-looking as possible, even if nature had left him little to work with.

Pictures in the exhibit show Lincoln with the usual dignified chin hair — not the gaunt frontier face that prompted 11-year-old Grace Bedell to write him just before Election Day: ``I have got 4 brother's and part of them will vote for you any way and if you let your whiskers grow I will try to get the rest of them to vote for you ... All the ladies like whiskers.''

Lincoln replied, saying people might think it an affectation. But when his train passed through her town, Lincoln sought out Grace, gave her a kiss and said he would take her advice.

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``Portrait of a Nation'' will be at the Bush library and museum Oct. 6, 2000 through Jan. 15, 2001; Harry S. Truman Library, Independence, Mo., Feb. 16, 2001-May 20, 2001; Gerald R. Ford Museum, Grand Rapids, Mich., June 22, 2001-Sept. 23, 2001; Ronald Reagan Museum, Simi Valley, Calif., Oct. 26, 2001-Jan. 21, 2002; Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Memphis, Tenn., Feb. 22, 2002-May 19, 2002; North Carolina Museum of History, Raleigh, N. C., June 21, 2002-Sept. 15, 2002; Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, Va., Oct. 18, 2002-Jan. 12, 2003.

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Carl Hartman has reported the world for The Associated Press for 55 years. He currently covers the Washington art and museum scene.

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On the Net: The National Portrait Gallery: www.npg.si.edu.