Presidential Portraits: An American Legacy

Presidential portraiture enjoys a special place in American art history. While images of contemporary presidents seem to pervade every news cycle in this day and age, very few images of our earliest presidents exist beyond a handful of painted portraits. Like the great royal official portraits of the European courts, they offer their own unique narrative on the history of power and politics in America. They also provide a fascinating glimpse into the history of the United States, particularly the way in which we view the nation’s highest office.

History of Presidential Portraits

Today, a candid photo of our president can be snapped in seconds. That was not the case, however, in the late 1700s when George Washington was sworn into office. In fact, official presidential portraits are among the only images we have of our early leaders. Thus, unveiling a new presidential portrait has become a tradition that will likely continue for all U.S. presidents to come.

The idea of creating portraits of our presidents came from England, where the Royal family and members of the aristocracy have been painted for generations. The great American artist Gilbert Stuart was the first to paint a presidential portrait, and he set the new standards for depicting American leaders. Unlike traditional portraits from Europe, Stuart did not want presidential paintings to symbolize elitism or power. Instead, the presidents were meant to look as if they were just another member of society, and that personal style can still be seen in today’s presidential portraits.

From traditional and dignified to avant-garde and intimate, here are our favorite presidential portraits of all time.

George Washington

1789-1797

President George Washington by Gilbert Stuart Artist: Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828). Oil on canvas, 1796. National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C.

The first president of the United States, George Washington's visage is among the most well-known of all presidential imagery. Perhaps it is, in part, because his face graces the United States' one-dollar bill; that image is based on a portrait by American artist Gilbert Stuart known as The Athenaeum. Stuart also painted three versions of the present work, known as the Lansdowne portrait - the most famous of these hangs in the East Room of the White House.

Having previously worked in England and Ireland, Stuart imbues his portrait of Washington with artistic tropes that at first glance may seem more at home in the official portraits of European kings. Yet, this portrait is purely American, with visual allusions to American freedom and patriotism hidden throughout. The stars and stripes on the back of the chair evoke the American flag, while the ancient Roman gold laurel leaf of victory is draped over the top. Stately books, including the Journal of Congress, rest on the tabletop, while the table's legs resemble a bunch of twigs tied with ribbon - an ancient symbol of unity. As a whole, the painting successfully expresses the spirit of the new nation, and Stuart adeptly captures the American identity.

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Thomas Jefferson

1801-1809

Thomas Jefferson by Mather Brown Artist: Mather Brown (1761–1831). Oil on canvas, 1786. National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C.

The key author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson was a statesman, a diplomat, vice president, and eventually third president of the United States. He was instrumental in creating the nation that we know today thanks to his organization of the Louisiana Purchase from France, which doubled the country's territory. A true Renaissance man, he was also a scientist, horticulturist, architect, and Enlightenment philosopher outside of the political realm.

This painting is the earliest known portrait of Thomas Jefferson; it was painted in 1786 while he was serving as the diplomatic ambassador to France. It was composed by Mather Brown, a young American painter working in London who was an early student of Stuart Brown (of Washington portrait fame). Thoughtful and handsome, Jefferson is portrayed with a classical sculpture of Lady Liberty behind him, a clear allusion to both his personal ideals and his nation.

John Quincy Adams

1825-1829

President John Quincy Adams by GPA Healy Artist: George Peter Alexander Healy (1813-1894). Oil on canvas, 1854. White House Historical Association (White House Collection)

John Quincy Adams was the son of second president John Adams and, like his father, was instrumental during the earlier formation of the country. He spent his life in service to the nation, first as minister to the Netherlands at the young age of 26, and later as a senator, Secretary of State, president, and eventually congressman. He won the presidency in 1825, narrowly defeating the war hero Andrew Jackson. In fact, it would be Jackson who would defeat Adams in 1829, making him a one-term president.

Yet, his greatest legacy perhaps came after his presidency, when he was elected to the House of Representatives in 1830. He became a staunch supporter of the anti-slavery movement, serving as a powerful leader and advocate for civil liberties. This posthumous portrait of the president was composed by George Peter Alexander Healy, one of the most popular American portraitists of the age. Healy portrays Adams with an official portrait of Washington, symbolizing his commitment to the nation.

Abraham Lincoln

1861-1865

President Abraham Lincoln By David Bustill Bowser Artist: David Bustill Bowser (1820-1900). Oil on photo paper mounted on canvas, 1965. M.S. Rau Antiques

Abraham Lincoln is perhaps the most well-known and beloved of all the 45 men who have served as President of the United States. Affectionately known as Honest Abe, the Rail-Splitter, and the Great Emancipator, Lincoln was instrumental in preserving the union during the Civil War and brought about the end of slavery with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1963.

This portrait of the president was created by one of the very few African-American artists of the period, David Bustill Bowser. Based upon the famous photograph of Abraham Lincoln by Mathew B. Brady that is now featured on the American five-dollar bill, this important work is both infinitely familiar and a remarkable rarity. While many well-respected artists painted Lincoln, few works were created during his lifetime, and even fewer by the hand of an African-American artist.

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Theodore Roosevelt

1901-1909

President Teddy Roosevelt by John Singer Sargent Artist: John Singer Sargent (1856-1925). Oil on canvas, 1903. White House Historical Association (White House Collection)

The first president to take office after the turn of the century, Theodore Roosevelt is considered the first “modern” president. Not only was America thriving under a new industrial age, but Roosevelt greatly expanded the role of the presidency, placing himself at the center of the political arena. He fully embraced his position as the leader of the country, and throughout his career effected vigorous reform. Extremely popular with the masses, Roosevelt was the youngest president ever to take office at the age of 42 and was the first president to use the media to speak directly to the people.

Roosevelt's first official presidential portrait was not the one seen here, but rather a work by artist Theobald Chartran. The president was, however, disappointed with the final outcome, and instead invited John Singer Sargent, one of the most significant American painters of the age, to paint a new version. Thoroughly modern and full of gravitas, Sargent's portrait eventually supplanted Chartran's version, and it still hangs in the White House to this day.

Franklin Roosevelt

1933-1945

Franklin Roosevelt's First Fireside Chat By Mort Kunstler Artist: Mort Kunstler (1931- ). Gouache on paper laid down on board, 1915. M.S. Rau Antiques

The fifth cousin of President Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt was the only United States president to be elected to four consecutive terms. He came to office in 1933 during the throes of the Great Depression and continued to serve through the conclusion of the Second World War. As a leader, he led his nation through its greatest financial crisis and one of its most devastating wartime conflicts.

His renowned fireside chats, a series of 30 intimate speeches broadcast across the nation, brought comfort and renewed confidence to millions of Americans during these times of crisis. "Together we cannot fail." These were the words spoken by President Franklin Roosevelt as he concluded his very first fireside chat on March 12, 1933. The historic moment is captured in this portrait by the celebrated American portrait artist Mort Künstler. Though not an official presidential portrait, it perfectly illustrates an integral and important piece of American history and Roosevelt's political story.

John F. Kennedy

1961-1963

Farewell to Ireland by Patrick Hennessy Artist: Patrick Hennessy (1915-1980). Oil on canvas, 1963. M.S. Rau Antiques

One of the most beloved presidents of all time, John F. Kennedy’s life is in many ways clouded by the shadow of his death. He was the second youngest president in United States history at the age of 43, and he was the first Roman Catholic ever to be elected. His short time as president was focused on economic revival, and he heralded in the longest sustained expansion of the economy since World War II. The JFK assassination in 1963 sent Americans into a state of collective grieving - to this day he remains regarded as one of the best-loved presidents in United States' history.

Roman Catholic and of Irish descent, Kennedy was a national hero in Ireland during his presidency. This poignant portrait by Irish painter Patrick Henness captures him at the end of a trip to Ireland in June of 1963, shaking outstretched hands as he boards Air Force One. A stunning ode to one of America's most beloved leaders, the unofficial portrait represents the tremendous potential and goodwill that Kennedy represented in the United States and abroad.

Barack Obama

2009-2017

 

President Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley. Oil on canvas, 2018. National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C. Artist: Kehinde Wiley (1977- ). Oil on canvas, 2018. National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C.

President Barack Obama's tenure as 44th President of the United States was an historic one - he served as the first black president of the United States and became a symbol of hope and equality during a time of political contentiousness. While it is difficult to look back on the historic legacy of a man so recently out of office, we can say with certainty that his official presidential portrait is among the most daring and highly personal of the bunch. Painted by the American artist Kehinde Wiley, the monumental portrait captures Obama in a pose that is both casual and confident. As we've seen, the trope of the seated president is not unusual, and Kehinde brilliantly refers back to the portrait painters who have come before him in the posing of his subject.

What sets this portrait of Obama apart, however, is the vibrant green foliage that envelops the background, with flowers that are personally significant to the president. The chrysanthemum, for instance, is the official flower of Chicago, while the African blue lilies represent his Kenyan father and the jasmine represents Hawaii, where he spent his childhood. As a whole, it is an evocative visual commemoration of one of the most significant presidencies in American history.

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