- Historic Sites
The Return Of The Peacemakers
The great emancipator and the liberator of Kuwait get together in the newest White House portrait
February/March 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 1
Interestingly, Abrams worked in much the same way Healy had 130 years earlier, doing careful research and pains-taking preliminary work. “The first thing I do with all my sitters is to have lunch with them,” Abrams explains. “We get relaxed together. It helps me to choose a pose. And this is what I did with President Bush.”
Then Abrams conducted an initial sitting at Kennebunk-port, where he made sketches of Bush and “took about two rolls of film.” Next he produced an underpainting of brown umber and white and took it to the second sitting, where he worked on it from the flesh. “The sittings themselves were not long,” he says. “I like to keep them interesting. We try to have a good time to keep the sitter awake and alert.” Abrams completed the canvas at his studio next to his Warren, Connecticut, home.
It was at the second sitting in Houston that the artist first revealed his plan to insert The Peacemakers into the background: “President Bush did not even know about it until I brought the underpainting to Houston. He loved the idea. ‘Oh, that’s just great,’ he said.”
The result links forever, at least in art, two Presidents who waged war in the name of democracy and liberty—albeit an ocean and a century apart. But even those most pleased by Abrams’s homage to Healy and Lincoln quickly noticed one disconcerting detail—or lack of one, to be more precise: The figure of the Great Emancipator is all but obliterated in Abrams’s picture, obscured by Bush’s head.
Generations from now, art historians and biographers might have speculated wildly about why George Bush’s official portrait placed Healy’s painting within it yet elected to erase any trace of the earlier canvas’s most iconic figure. Was Mr. Bush’s understandable aspiration to be associated with the Lincoln legacy ultimately tempered by a modest reluctance to make that connection too overt? Or was it something more?
As it turns out, it was something less—although the precise explanation remains elusive. Abrams insists that his decision to block out Lincoln was purely design-driven. “It was just the way it worked out in the composition,” he says. “After all, I was principally concerned with creating a good new painting, not reinterpreting an old one.”
But the curator of the White House remembers the genesis somewhat differently. According to Rex Scouten, “We felt that showing all of Lincoln right behind the President’s ear might have been too distracting—just too much.” Hence the result acknowledges Lincoln’s indelible influence on modern Presidents, Scouten asserts, but with appropriate subtlety.
Whatever the reasoning behind it, George Bush apparently likes the result exactly as it turned out: He has declared it “pretty darn good.” And now that it has gone on permanent display in the White House Grand Foyer, G. P. A. Healy’s tribute to four great warriors waging peace has re-emerged along with it—at long last.
One only wishes that Herbert E. Abrams, like so many artists before him, had attempted to insert the challenging features of Abraham Lincoln, “the most difficult subject who ever taxed my skills as an artist,” according to one who tried in vain in 1863. As Lincoln’s astute private secretary, John G. Nicolay, observed, “There are many pictures of Lincoln. There is no portrait of him.”