Collection The 2016 White House Christmas Ornament
Every year since 1981, the White House Historical Association has had the privilege of designing the Official White House Christmas Ornament....
Artists often use studies or sketches to develop their final compositions, and this is especially true of portrait painters. Prominent subjects have busy schedules, and few subjects are more prominent—or busy—than United States presidents. Quick sketches capture the angle of the face, the positioning of the figure, the selection of clothing and accessories, and even ideas for the background. One finds these studies in watercolor, pencil, charcoal, or chalk, or even as small oil paintings. The portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt by Douglas Chandor includes the studies as part of the formal portrait. Sometimes these spontaneous impressions are more revealing than the finished product.
The process of selecting a portrait or an artist to paint one for the White House has evolved over the years. During the 19th century, presidential portraits were accepted for the Executive Mansion by the congressional committees of the Library of Congress. It was a rather informal process. No attempt was made to secure a likeness while the president was in office or, for that matter, immediately after his departure. The only requirement appeared to be that the portrait looked like the president. By the latter part of the 19th century, outgoing presidents were informed by the commissioner of public buildings and grounds of appropriated funds available for their portraits by artists of their choosing. If a president died before an official portrait was painted, often the family chose the likeness for the White House collection.1 With the exception of the large painting of Martha Washington by Eliphalet F. Andrews (1878), which was executed originally on speculation, no public funds were provided for portraits of the first ladies. Likenesses of the first ladies were, for the most part, not actively pursued during the 19th century. When made available, they were accepted as gifts; the first of these was of Julia Gardiner Tyler, which she herself brought to the White House in the time of President Andrew Johnson.
Since 1967, the White House Historical Association has taken an active role in acquiring and donating portraits of the recent presidents and first ladies. The artists are selected and the completed portraits approved by the subjects before formal acquisition into the collection. With the formation of White House advisory committees—the Fine Arts Committee in 1961 and later the Committee for the Preservation of the White House, permanently established by executive order in 1964—it has been a goal to acquire contemporary or historic portraits of presidents and first ladies painted from life, either to represent those not in the collection or to replace earlier likenesses judged less than successful.
The White House has also sought artists’ life studies, created during the process of painting portraits in the collection. These images are easy neither to find nor to obtain. Preliminary artwork can be very desirable, especially for collectors who might never be able to own a finished portrait of so famous an individual. This interest was never more evident than at the 1996 sale of the estate of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Several sketches in various media, drawn by Aaron Shikler in preparation for the former first lady’s portrait, were included in the sale with estimated prices ranging from $5,000 to $15,000.2 One pastel drawing alone sold for $184,000.
Beginning with Elizabeth Shoumatoff’s 1971 gift of her watercolor drawings of Franklin D. Roosevelt and President and Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson, a few life studies can now be found in the White House collection. Examples from other institutions, such as the National Portrait Gallery and the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, have come to light, and they have been photographed for research purposes for the Office of the Curator. While adding to our understanding of the artistic process, these studies are also works of art and, when possible, are incorporated into historical exhibits at the White House.
At the close of his presidency in 1877, Ulysses S. Grant and his wife Julia Dent Grant left the United States for a world tour, visiting much of Europe and Asia. Shortly after their return in 1879, the former president sat for artist Thomas LeClear in his New York studio, perhaps at the suggestion of the well-known American artist Albert Bierstadt.3 From this sitting are two known portraits; one is a three-quarter length likeness, dated c. 1880, that had belonged to Grant and is now in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, and the other is a full-length portrait, dated 1881, now in the White House collection.
Discovered at auction and acquired for the White House in 1988, a small head study is also thought to have been painted at the time of the c. 1880 sitting. The composition differs slightly, however, from the two larger portraits. Grant’s eyes do not engage the viewer but stare into the distance. The background does not show a setting and is very dark.
The acquisition of the full-length portrait for the White House has been something of a mystery. It was first recorded hanging in the Red Room in 1883. The painting had not been purchased, and, in 1885, E. W. LeClear, the executor of the artist’s estate, had requested that the painting be returned to him. The commissioner of public buildings and grounds, Col. John M. Wilson, wrote to White House steward William Sinclair:
I am informed that this portrait was sent by Mr. [Albert] Bierstadt and that it was finally completed by Mr. Andrews; I believe that it was simply placed there for exhibition and that it is not the property of the United States. Mr. Le Clear desires to remove this portrait of General Grant from the Executive Mansion. ... As far as I am concerned, I see no objection to such action.4
By 1905, the Grant portrait was still in the White House and had not yet been purchased. This time, E. W. LeClear contacted the Senate Library Committee, one of the three congressional committees that oversaw the commissioning of official portraits and other works of art for the Capitol, the President’s House, and the city of Washington, stating that unless the painting was purchased, it would be necessary to remove it. He explained further that Albert Bierstadt, a friend of President Chester Arthur, had visited with Arthur in the White House in 1883 and told him about the Grant portrait that had passed to LeClear descendants after the artist’s death in 1882. Arthur expressed an interest in having the portrait hung in the White House. Originally intended as a loan, it was still in the White House after 20 years.5 Presumably a price was finally agreed upon, for the portrait was not returned and remains in the White House collection.6
The portrait of Lucy Webb Hayes, the first likeness of a first lady to be commissioned for the White House collection, was presented as a gift by the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). During the summer of 1880, the WCTU had suggested donating a White House memorial water-drinking fountain for the lawn in symbolic honor of Mrs. Hayes’s ban of liquor of all kind from the White House. President Rutherford B. Hayes proposed, instead, a “memorial picture.” Letters and circulars were sent by the WCTU throughout the country asking for contributions to provide for a portrait by a recognized artist.7 Daniel Huntington, a noted New York artist and then president of the National Academy of Design, was selected for the project.
In a letter to President Hayes, dated December 2, 1880, Huntington agreed to paint the portrait and listed his prices, ranging from $750 for a 30 x 25 inch painting showing just the head, to $3,500 for a full-length painting, measuring 7 x 4 Vi feet. He also stated:
2—I could go to Washington—but I could do better to paint in my own Studio and my engagements will keep me here for some weeks to come
3d—The number of sittings varies—from 3 to 10 or 12 according to their length (I generally have 2 hours)—After a first sitting I often have photographs taken in the exact pose of my Sketch by which to advance the work.—and if I have the dress it can be painted without the Sitter . . . with aid of a strong photograph 3 or 4 Sittings suffice.8
Huntington’s pencil sketch features not only a full-length pose of Mrs. Hayes but also additional drawings of her hands and notes about the composition and colors to be used. In the upper left comer, in the artist’s hand, is the date, December 21, 1880, the day of the first sitting, followed by a notation, “2d sketch— / adopted this.” The first lady is shown turned to her right while facing forward and wearing a dress with a train. At left is a small drawing of a hand holding flowers, perhaps an option for the right hand. Also along the left edge are additional artist notations such as, “eye brow not too brown / growing a little lighter / at the outside— / but still defined.” Regarding Mrs. Hayes’s eye color, Huntington wrote, “Iris—neutral citron— / darker outside—& more / neutral.” Along the right side are drawings of the left arm and the left hand accompanied by comments concerning jewelry to be displayed, “wedding ring / & / chaised ring / with diamond / leave out / the other / of pearls / on right hand. Mrs. Hayes says.” The reverse side of the drawing has other studies of Mrs. Hayes’s left hand with rings.
The oil portrait repeats the stately composition seen in the drawing. Mrs. Hayes wears a wine-colored velvet dress with train, and shows lace at the collar and around the sleeves. Around her neck is a cameo of President Hayes; in her right hand are three yellow roses. The background is a romantic imaginary exterior scene with, at right, a large, carved stone pillar that holds a jardiniere with a plant.
The portrait was completed and then presented to the White House on March 8, 1881. President James A. Garfield, inaugurated just four days earlier, officially received the painting from the WCTU. Hung in the East Room, the portrait was originally placed in an elaborately carved oak frame designed by Benn Pitman and made by his students from the Cincinnati School of Design, many of whom were women. By 1884, the portrait had been rehung in the Green Room, and, in October of that year, the oak frame had been replaced by a gilt frame.9 Huntington, visiting Washington in November 1884, saw the portrait of Mrs. Hayes and in a letter to the former president wrote:
I saw the portrait of Mrs. Hayes hanging in the best possible light, and I must confess that I was greatly pleased with its effect... I never saw it in the Carved frame, but the one now around it is a very beautiful and becoming one, and they all say that the change is very beneficial.10
Nearly two years after he left the White House, Benjamin Harrison selected American artist Eastman Johnson to paint his official portrait. Johnson, who had become known after the war primarily for genre scenes of rural and city life, turned to portraiture in the 1880s. He found greater financial success painting prominent subjects and did so for the remainder of his career. In 1890, while Harrison was president, Johnson was chosen to paint Grover Cleveland, who was Harrison’s predecessor and as it turned out, also his successor.
A study, thought to be a preliminary sketch for the official portrait, shows only Harrison’s head. It is rendered in charcoal with white chalk used to indicate lighter colors and highlights. The collar of the subject’s jacket, his shirt, and the knot of his tie are barely suggested. The positioning of his torso, turned to his right while his head faces slightly forward, is similar to the pose that appears in the final painting. The oil portrait, a three-quarter length likeness, shows Harrison standing in front of a table with his right hand resting on a stack of books. The background is an unidentified interior scene.
Little is known about the actual sittings. Harrison’s travels to New York City, a year before the 1896 election, did raise speculation that he was meeting with friends to discuss another try for the presidency, not that he was sitting for a portrait.11
The correspondence of Colonel Wilson, still commissioner of public buildings and grounds, has provided other details. On August 21, 1894, Wilson informed the former president that an act of Congress on August 18 had approved a sum of $2,500 for a portrait and frame intended for the White House.12
This painting was completed by August 1895, and Colonel Wilson received a letter from the artist, dated August 9, 1895, mentioning that he was sending the painting to the Adirondacks, where Harrison was vacationing. Eastman Johnson added, “I shall be pleased to hear what you think of it. Things are so dark in the White House and the pictures all look so dark that I painted this with a very light background.”13 Wilson wrote again to the former president on August 10, 1895, to ask if the completed portrait was agreeable, and, on August 30, 1895, Harrison responded:
I did not see the portrait after it was entirely finished; but it was practically done at the time I gave my last sitting. I told Mr. Johnson it was satisfactory to me. Some of the family suggested some points in which it might be changed for the better; but I do not think anyone can communicate to an artist such suggestions in any practical way. The light background was Mr. Johnson’s idea, and I have noticed that in many other recent portraits that style was used.14
During Anders Zorn’s seventh and last trip to the United States in 1911, he was commissioned to do both a painted portrait and an etched likeness of President William Howard Taft. The Swedish-bom Zorn achieved great international success during his lifetime, especially in the United States, where he received many commissions from prominent Americans, so he visited often. In addition to President Taft, other public figures painted and etched by Zorn include President Grover Cleveland and Frances Folsom Cleveland in 1895— an especially charming rendering in white satin—and President Theodore Roosevelt in 1905.
While the etching was not actually the preliminary artwork for the portrait of President Taft, it almost certainly reflects the sketches the artist did make of Taft in person. In the early 1880s, Zorn learned the fundamentals of etching and developed a technique similar to that of a watercolorist—compositions done quickly without being overworked. By 1883, his etchings were described as closely resembling the rapidly executed lines of the drawings in his sketchbooks.15
Zorn used drawings to help refresh images in his mind. A contemporaneous critic, J. Nilsen Lauvrik, described his working method in this manner:
Strongly opposed to all the conventionalities of the studio, he abhors posing as much as he dislikes monogamy, preferring to study his subjects under natural conditions when they are off their guard and then to transcribe his impressions largely from memory, after the essential lines have been noted.16
The etching of President Taft is the mirror image of the oil portrait. With an expressive series of lines, it focuses on the president seated in a Blue Room armchair. Other details that appear in the oil painting, such as the chair crest rail, the wainscoting, and the Greek key band on the wall covering, were not fully developed or, in some cases, not included in the print. The painting is signed and dated by the artist in the upper right comer. The etching is inscribed in this same location with, “TAFT / Pres. U.S.”; a pencil signature in Zom’s hand and a printed signature appear in the lower section of the print.
The initial meeting between the president and the artist is documented in a letter of April 16, 1911, from Archibald W. Butt, military aide and chief ceremonial officer during the Taft administration, to his sister-in- law, Clara Butt. Zorn was invited to a luncheon at the White House on April 15 to enable the Tafts to meet him. Beforehand, Butt was charged with showing the artist various White House rooms to help him decide where the portrait should be painted. Butt originally suggested the Blue Room to Zom, but at first it did not suit him. After visiting several other rooms on the State Floor and in the family quarters, they returned to the Blue Room where, Butt wrote, something seemed to catch his artistic fancy here for he made me sit near the south windows while he squinted his eyes and grunted and groaned and finally rubbed his hands to gether [sr'c] and said it will be fine.
Following the luncheon, Zorn had the president pose for a few minutes so that he could study how the light fell on his subject. When he was satisfied, Zom asked Taft for a sitting that afternoon, to which the president agreed.17
The completed formal portrait was hanging in the White House when, by direction of President Taft, Congress appropriated funds for its acquisition. A sum of $4,000 was paid to the artist on December 14, 1912. Since 1989, the painting has been exhibited in the Blue Room. During that same year, the etching was acquired for the collection, a gift of the White House Historical Association.
During a three-week stay in the White House in February 1924, Howard Chandler Christy painted two portraits of Grace Goodhue Coolidge, including a full-length likeness of the first lady with the family’s white collie, Rob Roy. A romantic portrayal, Mrs. Coolidge is shown wearing an ankle-length, red velvet dress and just the suggestion of a white, windswept crape scarf. The South Portico and the South Lawn fountain appear in the background.
President Calvin Coolidge, interested in all aspects of the painting, was consulted about the first lady’s gown. While the president favored a white brocaded satin gown, the artist proposed that she wear red as a contrast to the white dog. Reportedly Christy argued, “If she wears the red dress we’ll have the blue sky and the white dog to make red, white and blue.” The president was said to reply, “She could still wear the white dress and we’d dye the dog.”18
The watercolor and pencil sketch is thought to be a preliminary study for the formal portrait. Although the, face and hairstyle are not true to Mrs. Coolidge, the pose, the placement of the dog, the red dress, and the way the long sheer scarf drapes around the figure are all similar to what appears on the final portrait. The shadowing, the drape of the scarf around her left arm, and the gathered fabric on the left side of her dress were perhaps still to be determined. In the sketch, her left hand appears to be detached and floating while clutching an unidentified object. In the final portrait, her left hand emerges from a shadowy section of the scarf while clutching a small portion of it, as if to keep it from floating away from her.
The watercolor came to the attention of the White House in 1987 and was acquired for the permanent collection, a gift of the White House Historical Association. On occasion, it has been displayed in the China Room with the oil portrait of Mrs. Coolidge.
The oil portrait was purchased from the artist and presented to the White House by the Pi Beta Phi Fraternity for Women in honor of Mrs. Coolidge, a founding member of the Vermont Beta chapter and the first member to become first lady. Christy subsequently added a gold sorority pin to the left side of the red dress. The painting was unveiled at an East Room ceremony on April 11, 1924. Col. Clarence O. Sherrill, commissioner of public buildings and grounds, officially accepted the painting and thanked the assembled group, remarking that there were only seven other portraits of first ladies in the collection.19
Mrs. Coolidge described the presentation ceremony in an article for the November 1929 issue of American Magazine, saying that about 3,000 Pi Beta Phi members attended. She remembered that at the time of the presentation the exterior of the White House was receiving its “biennial two coats of paint.”
The south facade was covered with scaffolding, which did not add to the attractiveness of the place. A panorama picture had been taken of the group in the south grounds and we had turned to reenter the house when one woman said to another, “It is a beautiful house, isn’t it?” to which her friend replied, “Yes, but isn’t it too bad that they have to have all those fire escapes?”20
A thank you letter to the sorority followed on May 14, 1924. Mrs. Coolidge wrote, “The portrait is now in place in the lower corridor [the Ground Floor Corridor] with the other White House dames. Mr. Christy wants a light placed over it but, naturally, I would not so embellish my portrait when those of the other ladies must remain in outer [sic?] darkness.”21
Born in Surrey, England, Douglas Chandor emigrated to the United States in 1926 and became well known as a society portraitist.22 In the fall of 1944, Chandor contacted President Franklin D. Roosevelt about possibly painting a group portrait of the three major Allied leaders—President Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin. Roosevelt suggested, instead, a painting depicting these leaders at an upcoming conference being held at the Black Sea resort of Yalta, in February 1945, where the final phases of the war would be discussed. It had been the president’s intention that three copies would be painted—one for Britain, one for the Soviet Union, and the third for the United States, which would hang in the U.S. Capitol. Studies for the composition began in March 1945, shortly after Roosevelt’s return from the Yalta Conference, and a month before his death, when a visibly ill president sat twice for the artist in the Oval Office. Chandor planned to do separate studies of each leader, but when Stalin refused to pose, the project was never completed.23
One large canvas displays the oil sketches that were made from the sittings with the president. The upper half features a single likeness of Roosevelt seated with his hands crossed in front of him while holding a cigarette holder with a lit cigarette. The lower half of the canvas contains several detailed sketches of the president’s hands, positioned in different ways and holding various objects. Chandor’s concept for the final group portrait was drawn in the lower left comer along with the president’s right hand leaving the inscription, “OK / FDR.”
With perhaps the FDR composition in mind, Chandor executed a portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt in his New York studio in 1949. Commissioned by her son, Elliott, this painting also included a single, half-length likeness of Mrs. Roosevelt in the upper portion of the canvas and a series of studies in the lower section.
Mrs. Roosevelt is shown facing forward and seated next to a table with her left hand turning a book page and her right hand holding a pencil. The background is nondescript and incompletely painted, almost as if raw canvas were left exposed. Three studies of her face, each with a different expression, and three studies of her hands—holding eyeglasses, playing with her ring, and knitting—are in the lower third of the painting. An extra hand is shown resting against one of the face studies. The overall composition is very like that of the 1945 painting of Franklin Roosevelt.
Chandor’s signature, which appears in the upper left comer, is opposite an inscription in Mrs. Roosevelt’s hand, in the upper right comer, that reads, “A trial made pleasant / by the painter / Eleanor Roosevelt.” Regrettably, this feeling of goodwill did not last. Mrs. Roosevelt became furious when the artist increased the price of the portrait during its execution. According to Joseph Lash, in his biography of Eleanor Roosevelt:
It was so good that the price jumped fivefold in the course of the painting, which so incensed her that she startled the Charles F. Palmers during a visit to Val-Kill by using the word “dam” about the bill Chandor had sent Elliott. She would not permit Elliott to pay the higher price, she announced, although he wanted to do so. She would not permit anybody to pay such a price for her picture.24
Both portraits remained in the artist’s collection during his lifetime. In 1965, with the support of Lady Bird Johnson, and the approval of the Roosevelt family, the White House Historical Association successfully negotiated with the artist’s widow to acquire the likeness of Eleanor Roosevelt for the White House collection. Until that time, there was no portrait of Mrs. Roosevelt in the collection, and it was warmly received by Mrs. Johnson at an East Room ceremony on February 4, 1966. Although Ina Chandor had been reluctant to separate the Roosevelt portraits, she agreed to sell the painting, saying, “It is a nice feeling I have, to know it will have wonderful home at the White House.”25 In 1968, the portrait of President Roosevelt was acquired by the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.
At the unveiling ceremony for the Chandor portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt, Charles F. Palmer, then chairman of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Warm Springs Memorial Commission, and Mrs. Johnson discussed exploring the possibility of having Elizabeth Shoumatoff paint a portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt for the White House collection. The Russian-born Shoumatoff had painted President Roosevelt from life on two occasions, the first in 1943 from a sitting in the Oval Office. In April 1945, in Warm Springs, Georgia, the president was posing for this second likeness when he was stricken and died.
On March 25, 1966, Mrs. Johnson enthusiastically wrote to Palmer about adding a new portrait of Roosevelt to the collection:
As you may know, there is already a portrait of President Roosevelt in the mansion portion of the White House, but Lyndon feels very strongly that there should be an outstanding portrait of Mr. Roosevelt in the President’s office side of the house, as well. At present a borrowed portrait hangs in this area, and the President and I have been searching for a portrait . . . which could hang in the President’s office or in the Cabinet Room.
Mrs. Johnson also added that she was interested in Shoumatoff’s 1943 likeness and pleased by the artist’s comment that it showed ‘“great strength and character’— that is the way Lyndon and I knew him and want to remember him, rather than in the later days when he was ill and so very tired.”26
Following Shoumatoff’s initial meeting with the Johnsons at the White House in June 1966, where the 1943 portrait and sketches were discussed and suggestions offered, a new sketch was promised. Mrs. Johnson later wrote to Palmer that her reaction was one of a “quick flash of certainty that this is it!”27
By August, Mrs. Johnson had seen a new sketch of the proposed painting, and her comments were relayed to the artist in a letter written by her secretary, Ashton Gonella, which quoted her as saying: “The face is so splendid—I hope it will remain just the same.” Mrs. Johnson also commented on how perfect the cape, rolled document and everything was. “She was genuinely pleased.”28
The watercolor study incorporates the various suggestions made to the artist and reveals the composition as it would appear in its final state. The face is painted with enough detail that its resemblance to the 1943 likeness is also apparent. With the North Atlantic in the background, the president is shown seated and wearing his favorite navy cape. In both hands, he holds a rolled copy of the Atlantic Charter, a joint declaration made by President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill at a meeting that took place off the coast of Newfoundland on August 14, 1941, while Europe was a battleground. The Atlantic Charter expressed international ideals for a postwar world, at a time four months before the United States entered the war.
In November, the finished portrait was received at the White House and shown to Mrs. Johnson. It was presented as a gift to the collection by Shoumatoff and unveiled at an East Room ceremony on January 31, 1967, attended by Roosevelt descendants, friends, and staff members. The painting was then hung over the fireplace in President Johnson’s Oval Office, where it would be displayed for the remainder of his presidency.
A watercolor study and two other sketches, created during the execution of the official portraits of President and Mrs. Johnson, were presented to the White House by Shoumatoff in 1971.
Lady Bird Johnson worked with the Committee for the Preservation of the White House, created by her husband’s executive order in 1964, to try to obtain the best portraits of each president and first lady, ideally ones painted while they lived in the White House. With this in mind, Mrs. Johnson sought to have her likeness completed before the end of her husband’s presidency. Elizabeth Shoumatoff, whose 1966 portrayal of Franklin Roosevelt was warmly received by the Johnsons, was selected to paint her official portrait. Commissioned by the White House Historical Association, the painting was begun November 1, 1967, and executed over a five-month period that included five sittings with Mrs. Johnson in the Lincoln Sitting Room, located in the private quarters adjacent to the Lincoln Bedroom.
The composition of the watercolor sketch closely resembles the formal portrait. A colorful rendering with pencil lines for added detail, it illustrates a bust portrait of Mrs. Johnson wearing a yellow chiffon gown. Brush strokes of blue, green, and brown suggest highlights and areas of shadowing. Unlike Shoumatoff’s sketch of Franklin Roosevelt, the face lacks detail and is simply drawn. Pendant-shaped diamond earrings, which appear in the completed painting, are suggested by a few pencil strokes. A pencil drawing in the lower right comer shows a view of the Jefferson Memorial. A frame is also suggested by pencil lines and strokes of brown paint that surround the outside edge of the composition.
It was Mrs. Johnson who selected the view of the Jefferson Memorial seen from the White House for the background of her painting. A press release announcing the completion of the portrait explained that it was chosen, “because it is my favorite view, because the Jefferson Memorial has beautiful classical lines, because Thomas Jefferson is my favorite ‘founding father’ and four men in my family are his namesakes— my grandfather, my father, brother, and nephew.”29 After lunch I dressed in my chiffon and went down to the Lincoln Sitting Room to meet Madame Shoumatoff. I had approached the painting of my portrait with fear and trembling, but I must say I’ve enjoyed it. My sittings have actually been a pleasure. Madame Shoumatoff is an entertaining talker, and she keeps right on painting and talking at the same time.30
The composition of the watercolor sketch closely resembles the formal portrait. A colorful rendering with pencil lines for added detail, it illustrates a bust portrait of Mrs. Johnson wearing a yellow chiffon gown.
The next day, Mrs. Johnson met with the artist for the final sitting. After about 30 minutes, Shoumatoff decided that they should show the portrait to someone for outside advice. Mrs. Johnson remembered that the president was having lunch down the hall with financier Andre Meyer, “who knew a great deal about art.” She asked the two men for their reaction to the portrait and later wrote:
Presently they walked in. I felt as if I would burst, for about thirty seconds, and then both of them simultaneously said, “I like it. I like it very much!” Lyndon went on to say that he liked the hair and the eyes, but that something needed to be done about the neck. Madame Shoumatoff said, “You have a good eye. It is not finished. I am going to take the portrait with me and work on it for a week or two. What you see below the face represents only the beginning, just a sketch.” Andre was lavish in his approval, and I don’t know who was more relieved, Madame Shoumatoff or I.31 Just as he left the room, Lyndon had looked back over his shoulder and said, “Tell her she can sign up to start painting me right away.” Neither she nor I carried this matter any further but that is what I have been hoping for. After Easter, when we see the final version of my portrait, perhaps we can raise the subject of his.32
With that passing remark to Lady Bird Johnson, President Johnson had chosen Elizabeth Shoumatoff to paint his official White House portrait. Mrs. Johnson had hoped to have both of their portraits painted before they left the White House. As the Johnson administration was drawing to a close, however, she may have thought that her goal would not be realized. An earlier attempt by Southwestern artist Peter Hurd, in 1967, had been rejected. It had not been well received by the president or his family and was ridiculed by the press. As Mrs. Johnson diplomatically wrote, “Lyndon could find nothing good about the portrait at all.”33
Commissioned by the White House Historical Association, Shoumatoff began the president’s portrait in late April 1968 and had completed it by late July. The artist had seven sittings with the president in the Lincoln Sitting Room. Mrs. Johnson stated that they had wanted a portrait similar in scale to the Rembrandt Peale portrait of Thomas Jefferson, also in the White House collection, and a “misty hint of the Capitol dome” in the background. The president had often said that he was a creature of Congress.34 Intended as an allegory, the Capitol dome would represent the 12 years Johnson had served in the House of Representatives and the 12 years he had also served in the Senate before becoming vice president in 1961.
The watercolor study shows the president turned slightly to his right and wearing a dark suit, a white shirt, and a rather bold red and blue tie with a similar handkerchief in the left breast pocket. As with the sketch of Mrs. Johnson, the face is simply drawn and the background, in this instance the Capitol, is suggested by only a few pencil lines and washes of paint.
The overall composition of the sketch closely resembles the final portrait. The oil portrait, however shows the president wearing a charcoal gray suit, a somewhat more subdued navy and maroon striped tie, and a white handkerchief. It also includes a battle ribbon on his lapel for the Silver Star presented to him by General Douglas MacArthur during World War II.
It was determined that both of the portraits of the President and Mrs. Johnson would not be on public view until the end of the Johnson presidency. During Mrs. Johnson’s final walk-through of the family quarters on inauguration day, January 20, 1969, she noted that the portraits were still on easels in the East Sitting Hall and requested that they be placed in the care of the curator.35 During the first week of the new Nixon administration, the portrait of President Lyndon B. Johnson was hung in the Red Room.
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Biographies & Portraits
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