Magazine article Insight on the News

Painting for Posterity

Magazine article Insight on the News

Painting for Posterity

Article excerpt

The oil paintings of former presidents range from stuffy studies to colorful interpretations. But if a portrait is done well, a president's character can leap from the canvas.

The great ones need no help. Gilbert Stuart's portrait of George Washington stands tall in the East Room, the first president extending his right hand as if beckoning his beloved countrymen. (Trumpets, please.) G.P.A. Healy's portrait of Abraham Lincoln depicts the Great Emancipator sitting, right elbow on crossed legs, hand to bearded chin, pondering the Civil War. Standing or seated, the presidents of the United States at one time or another pose for an official oil portrait that captures (or fails to capture) their character for posterity.

"They do become well-known through photographs," says White House curator Betty Monkman. "What we look for is that they convey some sense of the person, and that's hard for artists today to do."

But even average presidents do well under the proper artist. Healy's portrait of John Tyler is considered the finest of the seven he did for the White House -- there's drama in Tyler's Roman profile. The paper he clutches, dealing with the annexation of Texas, "evokes a feeling of his time," says Monkman.

Portraits of recent presidents line the walls of the first floor of the White House. Herbert Abrams' 1995 depiction of George Bush hangs in the North Entrance Hall, for example. The Warren, Conn., artist also painted Jimmy Carter, the likeness considered the best of the moderns. Carter's hands are folded, as in prayer, as he sits in a French mahogany armchair from the Red Room.

The portrait of John F. Kennedy takes center stage, however, positioned next to the landing leading to the family quarters. Rendered in 1970 by Aaron Shikler, the painting presents JFK with folded arms and downcast eyes.

"It's a beautiful portrait that has gotten a lot of comment from the public, because his head is sort of bowed," Monkman says. "The artist said he definitely wanted to portray him as a thinking president. With the muted colors, it's a very sensitive painting."

Everett Raymond Kinstler's painting of Ronald Reagan, impressionistic in color and tone, captures his upbeat persona, as does the artist's image of Gerald Ford, which shows him crossed-legged, the ever-present pipe in his lap. His blue-gray pinstripe suit, black-and-white tie and blue shirt add a vibrancy overlooked by the media and polls.

Kinstler also has painted a portrait of President Clinton that hangs in the Yale Club in New York. "The Clintons have looked at portfolios," Monkman says, "but they have not made any decision to sit. We would hope they would do that [before they leave office] if their schedules permit."

The president may select an artist from lists provided by the curator and other sources, such as the National Portrait Gallery. …

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