- Historic Sites
A historian of American portraits tells how he determines whether a picture is authentic—and why that authenticity matters
July/August 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 4
Would a computer be able to distinguish a lemon from a lime? Or would it tell us they are the same things?
Predictably, the quality and spontaneity of portraiture decline when artists copy their original works or when they copy from copies and other secondary sources like photographs. These more remote images of dubious integrity and authenticity pose challenges to those who study them. The portraiture of Andrew Jackson is especially instructive about the difficulties of identifying the life portraits of a long-vanished subject. Jackson was the foremost American eminence of his age; not even Daniel Webster was more frequently portrayed between 1815 and 1845. Jackson’s image appeared over parlor mantelpieces and tavern doors, on political ephemera, in cartoons, and atop outdoor monuments. Today he is depicted on countless twenty-dollar bills. Still, his image casts some dark shadows for anyone wishing to see him in his historical entirety.
The principal obstacle in piecing together his portrait record is that Jackson’s voluminous personal correspondence relates almost nothing about it. John Quincy Adams, by contrast, was fascinated with art and portraiture—his own and everybody else’s—and recorded in detail his sittings with painters and sculptors. In fact, Adams’s diary relates more about Jackson’s portraiture than Jackson ever did himself. The great problem with Jackson therefore is one of verification, specifically which artists executed likenesses of him and when and where the sittings took place.
Jackson’s image appeared over parlor mantelpieces and tavern doors, in cartoons, and atop outdoor monuments.
Remarkably, no images of Andrew Jackson are known to exist before 1815, when he became the hero of the Battle of New Orleans. On March 15 of that year, Jackson turned forty-eight. His stunning victory assured that his image would forever be included in the pantheon of great Americans. Yet largely because of Jackson’s military campaign against the Seminole Indians in the wilds of West Florida, no truthful likeness of him emerged until 1819, when he granted sittings to some of the nation’s best portraitists, Charles Willson Peale, Thomas Sully, and John Vanderlyn, to name just three. Before that time images of him were either fabricated by imaginative artists or based on a crude painting executed by Nathan W. Wheeler in New Orleans following the battle. Although largely a caricature, this oil-on-canvas portrait was engraved by the celebrated Philadelphia printmaker David Edwin and widely distributed. It is historically significant because of its early association with Old Hickory. Moreover, it is the key to understanding still another early Jackson portrait—a far more realistic one—which currently hangs in the Map Room of the White House. Tradition has long held that John Wesley Jarvis painted this likeness from life in New Orleans after the victory. Unquestionably, Jarvis’s portrait is the most convincing of the early portraits of the hero. Yet careful comparison of it with the engraving by Edwin has revealed an unexpected discovery: The White House portrait is a cleverly enhanced copy. The evidence is unmistakable when you compare the two likenesses feature by feature. For instance, the lines and shadings on Jackson’s right cheek and around his eyes are identical, and the mouths are nearly so. The most telling feature is the evolution of the shadow on the left side of Jackson’s nose. In Wheeler’s portrait it clearly is a shadow; in Edwin’s print this area has been lightened and therefore loses a measure of its original delineation. Consequently, in Jarvis’s portrait this detail is misinterpreted as a small growth on Jackson’s nose. Predictably, Jarvis copied the widely circulated print by Edwin. He probably never saw Wheeler’s original oil painting.
With imagination and skill Jarvis transformed Wheeler’s clumsy, ill-proportioned likeness into a believable representation of Jackson, albeit an unauthentic one. He improved or simplified the nose, the ears, and the uniform. Out of necessity he copied faithfully various other, less egregious features because he had nothing else by which to guide his ambitious brush. A noticeable difference in the eyes—Jackson’s left reveals greater technical skill—suggests that two different hands may have been at work here. Periodically Jarvis opened his New York studio to students, and this portrait may represent a practice session by one of them. Apparently Jarvis never touted this painting as a serious work, which may explain why no record of it has ever been found.