February/March 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 1
The great emancipator and the liberator of Kuwait get together in the newest White House portrait
From the moment he was first inspired to paint it, George Peter Alexander Healy harbored huge ambitions for the canvas he entitled The Peacemakers . The artist longed for it to be universally embraced as “a true historical picture,” cherished as the emblem of sectional reconciliation following the bloody Civil War.
From the moment he was first inspired to paint it, George Peter Alexander Healy harbored huge ambitions for the canvas he entitled The Peacemakers. The artist longed for it to be universally embraced as “a true historical picture,” cherished as the emblem of sectional reconciliation following the bloody Civil War.
It was not to be. At least not until now, thanks to an unexpected renaissance in its reputation, one inspired by another President, another artist, and another painting. It may sound unfathomable, but credit George Bush with thus giving Abraham Lincoln an image boost this year.
The original problem with Healy’s tribute to peace was that it actually portrayed a council of war—a March 28, 1865, strategy session by the Union high command aboard the side-wheeler River Queen, anchored off City Point, Virginia.
The so-called peacemakers Healy depicted were far better known for crushing the enemy than for coddling them: Gen. William T. Sherman, fresh from making “Georgia howl” on his march to the sea; Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, famed for bulldog ruthlessness in battle; Adm. David Dixon Porter, who commanded the starvation-inducing Union blockading squadron; and Abraham Lincoln himself, whom at least half the country blamed for the death and suffering inflicted by the war. This was not a dramatis personae associated with peace. The inconsistency may have doomed the painting’s reputation even before it was completed, but its iconography was further muddled by seeming chiefly designed to celebrate not Lincoln but the artist’s “dear friend” Sherman.
The general, a notoriously uncooperative sitter—during the war he had told one artist to “go to a hot place” when asked to pose—not only sat for Healy but persuaded Grant to cooperate as well, even though his old commander’s first reaction was: “I have sat so often for portraits that I had determined not to sit again.” Sherman even got Porter to provide detailed diagrams of the shipboard cabin where the conference had taken place.
Healy repaid this debt by making Sherman the dominant figure of a picture ostensibly designed to celebrate Lincoln’s policy of “malice toward none.”
The public reacted skeptically. A chromolithograph adaptation was published, but judging by the rarity of surviving prints, it proved unpopular. Print audiences evidently preferred fanciful scenes of Lincoln’s ascent into heaven to realistic ones of his wartime strategy sessions. Then, worst of all, Healy’s huge five-and-a-half-by-four-foot canvas, completed in Rome in 1868, was destroyed by fire.
But the intrepid artist had made several copies before losing the original, and eventually the White House acquired one of them, although it was later relegated to the private upstairs rooms. Gone but not forgotten, The Peacemakers at least remained familiar through ubiquitous illustrations in books and magazines. Now, propelled by an odd twist of artistic fate, it has suddenly and unexpectedly returned to the public view. This time it has even made it to television.
Last July President Clinton invited George Bush back to the White House to unveil the painter Herbert E. Abrams’s official White House portrait of the former Chief Executive. A large and enthusiastic East Room audience saw Bush in his Gulf War prime, symbolic new-world-order globe at his elbow and, clearly visible behind him, an unmistakable picture-within-the-picture of Healy’s The Peacemakers. Photographers recorded the dual image, C-SPAN televised it into millions of homes, and President Clinton declared, “I think the artist did a wonderful job, and we’re all in his debt.” Not the least of whom must surely be Healy, whose composition was thus finally awarded the full national exposure the artist so coveted.
Of course, even during its years out of public view The Peacemakers always had its admirers, and it turns out that one of the most ardent was George Bush. As Abrams learned after he won the coveted commission to paint him, “when he had guests upstairs, he liked to point it out and show people in particular the rainbow breaking out of the ship window to symbolize peace.”
A White House associate curator, Betty Monkman, gets the credit for alerting Abrams to Mr. Bush’s fondness for The Peacemakers . “I immediately decided to create a composition that stressed it,” says Abrams.
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.”