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Coffee-table book adds artists’ stories to presidential portraits

- - Thursday, February 9, 2012

JFK fidgeted, but Richard Nixon sat perfectly still.

No, not in the historic televised presidential debate, but in sitting for their respective portraits, Kennedy's by Elaine de Kooning (wife of the more famous Willem) and Nixon's, appropriately enough by Norman Rockwell.

Both are shown in "Portraits of the Presidents: The National Portrait Gallery," a new coffee-table book that collects in its glossy pages images of all 44 U.S. presidents. Frederick Voss, formerly the Portrait Gallery's chief historian, mined the selection from its 1,600-plus presidential likenesses.

Published as part of Rizzoli's emporium of coffee-table books, the volume includes captions describing the circumstances surrounding the portraits plus historical accounts of the subjects' presidencies. One could have done with much more of the first and perhaps less of the second.

Easier said than done, Mr. Voss said. "Very often, not a whole lot is known about these situations," he told The Washington Times. "The portrait was painted, but we don't know much beyond that."

What is known, however, can be revealing. For example, Rockwell describes President Nixon as "the hardest man I ever painted" and tells how he handled the challenge that all portrait painters face: flattery or realism? Nixon, he says, was "almost good looking," so the artist decided to improve on nature and make the president good looking.

De Kooning recounts that Kennedy's restlessness made him elusive to capture on canvas. "His appearance altered radically and often during her seven sittings with the president" in late 1962, according to the caption. A tantalizing tidbit, one that raises and leaves unanswered nagging questions: How did his appearance alter? Did he put on weight? Or appear thinner? And over what period were the sittings? More intriguing still, could the portrait sittings have coincided with the Cuban missile crisis? That certainly would account for the restlessness.

In the end, de Kooning painted 23 versions of the portrait before she was happy with the result, shown in the book, and the work's singular combination of representational and abstract expressionist techniques captures the subject's kinetic energy.

The National Portrait Gallery adds a portrait of the departing president at the end of each presidency. Its collection is not to be confused with the collection of official portraits of presidents and first ladies in the White House, these days commissioned and paid for - with the help of private donors - by the White House Historical Association.

That practice wasn't started until 1961. Before that, things were more haphazard. It was often left to the president to decide on an official portrait. Harry S. Truman, for example, chose a painting by Viennese-born Greta Kempton. The book includes another Truman portrait by Kempton, who painted so many likenesses of the Truman family that she was known as the president's "court painter."

Before 1961, whether or not a president had his portrait painted generally was left to happenstance and (usually) rich friends. A couple of presidents didn't have their portraits painted until after they left office.

Monarchs historically sat for portraits so their subjects could know what they looked like. In a way, the same was true of the early American presidents, and the book includes the famous Landsdowne portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, recently purchased by the National Portrait Gallery.

By Abraham Lincoln's day, photography was sufficiently advanced for the president to pose for a photograph, shown in the book. His seated portrait was painted after his death by George P.A. Healy, who later produced another version for the White House. In the second version, Mr. Voss said, Healy put Lincoln in a gilded chair to make it more worthy of the White House.

Other notable inclusions are George H.W. Bush's almost full-length portrait by Ron Sherr, painted at the family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, but with a West Wing backdrop, and Chuck Close's enlarged ink-print head shot of President Clinton against a black background.

Also included is a portrait of Ronald Reagan with enormous shoulders, painted toward the end of his second term.

When Reagan saw it, he said, "Yep, that's the old Buckeroo."