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A Painter And Three Presidents

April 2023
1min read

The reaction of Lyndon Johnson to Peter Kurd’s portrait of him is hardly unique in the annals of presidential paintings. But there was one painter—the most celebrated portraitist of his time—who turned the tables and voiced his displeasure with not one but three Presidents.

In 1903, at the invitation of the First Lady, John Singer Sargent went to Washington to paint a portrait of Theodore Roosevelt. From the beginning the two men did not get on. On the very first day, when Sargent roamed through the White House looking for a place to work, Roosevelt complained impatiently, “The trouble with you, Sargent, is that you don’t know what you want.” “No,” the painter answered. “The trouble, Mr. President, is that you don’t know what a pose means.” T. R., who was going up the stairs, turned, grasped a newel post, and roared, “Don’t I!” And that is how he still stands in the Sargent portrait, now in the Red Room. When the painting was finished, the irrepressible Roosevelt declared, “I like his picture enormously,” but Sargent complained to the press about T. R., and said that he had “felt like a rabbit in the presence of a boa constrictor.” The painter swore that he would never do another presidential portrait. Fate was against him. In 1915, with the First World War raging, the British Red Cross held an auction in London at which the highest bidders received the right to have their portraits done by some of the world’s greatest painters. The right to a portrait by Sargent was won for £10,000 by Sir Hugh Lane, the director of the Irish National Gallery. That was in April, and in May, Sir Hugh was one of those lost when the Lusitania was sunk by a German submarine. When his estate was finally settled, the United States had just entered the war; the Irish National Gallery, given the right to decide on the sitter for the Sargent portrait, chose President Woodrow Wilson.

Sargent could not very well refuse the request, and in October, 1917, he began the painting. He found Wilson stiff, dull, and boring. The portrait—it hangs in the Irish National Gallery—was acclaimed, but Sargent had wryly written to his old Boston friend, Isabella Stewart Gardner, “It takes a man a long time to look like his portrait… but Wilson is doing his best.” Again he swore never to paint another President. This time he made it stick. In 1924, Calvin Coolidge, wishing to have his portrait done by Sargent, approached the painter through Sargent’s close friend and cousin, Mary Potter. One night after dinner when Sargent was in a particularly good mood, she casually mentioned the President’s request. Sargent fell back as though struck by a bullet, and cried, “You’ve ruined my whole dinnerl” President Coolidge was never painted by John Singer Sargent.

—D. G. L.

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