The Body Politic: Portraits of American Presidents
Since ancient times, political leaders have captured the imagination of artists and the public. The portrayal of United States presidents has a long and varied history, with examples ranging from officially-sanctioned portraits to private commissions, and from fine-art images to caricatures and journalistic photographs. Throughout our country’s history, artists have enjoyed the freedom and privilege of portraying their leaders in many different guises, styles, and media. This exhibition, organized to coincide with the second inauguration of the nation’s forty-third president, George W. Bush, as well as with the celebration of Presidents’ Day, offers a sampling of such images from the Corcoran’s extensive collection.
The painter Gilbert Stuart exerted the most influence on the history of American presidential portraiture. As a leading portraitist in Federalist America, Stuart painted evocative characterizations of several early presidents, but was best known for his many paintings of the nation’s first commander-in-chief. Stuart’s Athenaeum portrait of George Washington, the likeness reproduced on the one dollar bill, is referenced in Sante Graziani’s patriotic 1965 canvas. (One of the Corcoran’s two copies of the Atheneum portrait—so-called because it was acquired by the Boston Athenaeum shortly after Stuart’s death—is on view downstairs in the exhibition Figuratively Speaking: The Human Form in American Art, 1770–1950.) Among G.P.A. Healy’s numerous presidential portraits is his rendering of John Adams after Stuart, complete with the latter artist’s virtuoso brushwork, seen especially in the delicate rendering of Adams’ hair. Thomas Sully’s full-length portrait of James Madison, the nation’s fourth president, relies heavily on Stuart’s 1796 portrait of George Washington, known as the Landsdowne portrait. Sully’s choice of classically-inspired pose and gesture, as well as an elaborate setting with drapery, columns, and rich furnishings, all derive from the Lansdowne treatment.
While none of the portraits here are official presidential images, most were created in traditional bust- or full-length formats and employ the time-honored medium of oil on canvas. In recent decades artists have departed radically from such formats, choosing more contemporary media to achieve penetrating portrayals of the nation’s leaders. Most of the presidential portraits in the Corcoran’s collection date to the nineteenth century; however, a sampling of twentieth-century works, most notably Chuck Close's large-scale photographic portrait of Bill Clinton, completes the exhibition.
This exhibition was organized by the Corcoran Gallery of Art and was curated by Sarah Cash, Bechhoefer Curator of American Art, and Emily Shapiro, Assistant Curator of American Art.