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Painters, Sculptors Defined Leaders

December 25, 2000

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The cartoon postcard portrayed Theodore Roosevelt in pith helmet, his rifle smoking, surrounded by the lions and elephants he pursued during a post-presidential African safari.

The 1909 card, designed by political cartoonist Clifford Berryman, was addressed to the U.S. Senate, followed by a pointed message:

``Every time I shoot anything I think of you.″

Berryman’s inscription, which may well have reflected TR’s feelings after years of dealing with Congress, is included in ``The Artful Presidency,″ an online exhibit drawn from the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art.

Available only on the Internet, it is an outgrowth of ``The American Presidency, a Glorious Burden,″ a new exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

The show displays letters to artists from Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover and Andrew Jackson. There are photographs and records from Benjamin Harrison’s Western tour of 1891 and the papers of artists documenting their portraits of the presidents of their times.

The public image of the nation’s presidents was supplied by the artists who portrayed them, and some chief executives were genuinely grateful.

``Sculptor, thy hand has moulded into form the haggard features of a toil-worn face,″ former President John Quincy Adams intoned in an 1837 burst of poetry dedicated to sculptor Hiram Powers, who had portrayed Adams in a bust.

``And whosoever views thy work shall trace an age of Sorrow, and a life of Storm,″ wrote the gloomy former president, who was doubtless feeling beleaguered in his second turbulent career as a member of the House of Representatives.

The exhibit includes a page from the diary of Rubens Peale, a member of a large and extended artistic family, dated April 15, 1865, when he was 81: ``Sad news of the murder of President Lincoln, he was shot while attending a performance at Ford’s theater last night in Washington ....″

Members of the Peale family had been indefatigable presidential portrait painters since the days of George Washington. A week after he recorded the president’s assassination, Peale noted that his sister, Mary, had lingered at Lincoln’s bier when the body was available for public viewing in Philadelphia because ``she is intending to paint a portrait of him.″

A little further on is a recollection from portrait artist Greta Kempton describing her portrait sessions with President Harry S. Truman.

``We never lacked for conversation because he took my work seriously and had a limitless curiosity about my techniques,″ she wrote. ``He wanted to know about colors, about the brushes used and about the work of other painters. ... He had expressive blue eyes, clear-cut features and the kind of fair skin that reflects the light. When he looked at me I felt he was trying to sum me up immediately.″

Painter Thomas Eakins had a similar opportunity to observe President Rutherford B. Hayes: ``The president once posed. I never saw him in the same pose again. He wrote, took notes, stood up, swung his chair around. In short, I had to construct him as I would a little animal.″

The artist’s eye also took in Theodore Roosevelt.

``His pants are too short,″ portraitist William Daniel Murphy wrote his wife. ``He walks with a bounding step and looks mostly at the pavement ahead of him ... two men 40 feet behind him called detectives trying to keep up with him. No gloves on _ hands pink _ not too much color in face. hair brown _ shade lighter than mine _ slightest tinge of warmth in ugly mustache ....″

And there’s a 1939 memo on White House stationery from Franklin Roosevelt to Edward Bruce, who directed New Deal arts programs and who wanted to leave the administration.

``What is all this nonsense about your contemplated resignation? When a fellow turns up in Washington and proves he can make bricks out of straw, that the bricks are durable and artistic, and that nobody else can make them, the president puts a Marine Guard around him and does not let him out of town.″


EDITOR’S NOTE _ Lawrence L. Knutson has covered the White House, Congress and Washington’s history for more than 30 years.


On the Net: Archives of American Art: http://w.w.w.archivesofamericanart.si.edu/exhibits/presidents/intro.htm

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