Tackling Tough Teddy: Roosevelt Exhibit Displays an Immortal `Icon'

Article excerpt

Poised front and center in the National Portrait Gallery's exhibit "Theodore Roosevelt: Icon of the American Century" is an exquisite portrait: John Singer Sargent's 1903 oil painting of TR himself, his right hand slapped on the globe of a banister, left fist on his hip, staring firmly ahead. The White House chose it as Roosevelt's official portrait.

The reason was obvious to TR's intimates. It's not merely because Sargent was the premier portraitist of his time (the TR exhibit has two of his other works) or that the likeness, contrasting Roosevelt's pink face with his black frock, is startlingly accurate.

What Sargent captured in Roosevelt, as TR biographer David McCullough once put so succinctly, was the melancholy in his eyes.

The exhibit shows that life for TR was not always as bully as the 26th president (1901-1909) tried to paint it. For all his bombastic activity, Roosevelt maintained a grip as best he could, amid a whirlwind of being one of the most megawatt men of the 20th century.

Born in privilege and packed into a 5-foot-8-inch, 200-pound frame, Roosevelt was wound tighter than a coiled spring. His 60 years of activity on this Earth could have covered six lifetimes. Yet he was just as happy quietly pondering the poetry of close friend Edward Arlington Robinson.

Roosevelt's personality suited a fast rise in politics. (He talked so much at Harvard University that one professor chided him with, "See here, Roosevelt, I'm conducting this class!")

He was a New York assemblyman, police commissioner and governor. He led his troop of Roughriders into the Battle of San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War. He was vice president and at 42 became the youngest president of the United States. He wrote two dozen books.

He also was friendly to the press, always including members in his activities.

This exhibit is peppered with Roosevelt's diplomatic comments about various portraits; no matter the likeness, he always found something to like. People knew TR would become legendary, so most of the artifacts here are in pristine condition.

"Where do you start?" asks exhibit curator James G. Barber, looking out over his first-floor exhibit. "Since we had only so much space, we could not cover every aspect of that life."

Like the Sargent painting, the exhibit subtly and then not-so-subtly reveals a tapestry of Roosevelt's multifaceted personality. Busts of TR, with shoulders thrust forward, seem in constant motion.

Despite the sheer volume of activity documented in this exhibit - it can be downright exhausting - Mr. Barber steers us from pedantry. Captions have humor and let us see similarities to politics today.

We also see the tender TR.

In an amusing, contradictory letter to his "darling wifie" Alice, "my bright sunny little love," he writes that he longs for her "oh so tenderly, doubly tenderly my sweetest." On the same page, he also reports sparring with his boxing teacher and "bloodying his nose by an uppercut and knocking him out of time."

Roosevelt also led the rough life of a cowboy in a dandified style. To the left of the Sargent portrait, encased in glass, is a custom-made, 1880s buckskin suit TR wore when he worked his cattle ranch in the Dakota Territory's Badlands. He rode 50 miles on horseback to collect this garment. ("It didn't faze him a bit," Mr. Barber says.) One biographer opined that "his cowboy outfits dimmed the sunsets of the Western skies." A larger-than-life wall photo shows him decked out in his fringed suit, grasping his custom-made rifle, his lips clamped shut, alleging meanness.

In the same case as the suit shines an ornate, personally engraved hunting knife with sterling silver sheath and handle crafted by Tiffany in 1885. The dirty gray blade's edges are unevenly serrated with wear.

"He had the best of everything," Mr. …