It may be the age of the photo selfie, but with the recent unveiling of the presidential portrait of Barack Obama at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, Americans are again reminded that official renderings of our top leaders tend to come in the most traditional of forms: oil paintings on canvas, displayed inside a fancy frame.
As a group, the 44 images to date hew pretty closely to the venerable tradition of power portraits—think kings and popes through the ages. There are the obligatory somber backdrops, the stiff, dignified poses and occasional props, like a globe, a book or some important-looking papers. Only a handful of artists have broken from such traditional stylings. And a few have embedded pointed symbolism. Not all presidents were happy with the results.
Below, the back stories to some of the most striking presidential portraits:
When choosing artists to paint their portraits, President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle expressed the importance of having African-American painters create the images. Mr. Obama chose painter Kehinde Wiley, known for stylized portraits that address the politics of race, saying he admired the “degree to which [the paintings] challenge our conventional views of power and privilege.” Wiley says the lush, leafy background imagery he chose for the portrait was a way of symbolically “charting [Obama’s] path on Earth,” including African blue lilies for Kenya, for his father’s heritage; jasmine for Hawaii, where the former president was born; and chrysanthemums, the official flower of Chicago.
John F. Kennedy
Prior to the unveiling of Kehinde Wiley’s canvas of Barack Obama, this image of President Kennedy, painted by abstract artist Elaine de Kooning, was arguably the most modernist rendering of all the official presidential portraits. Kennedy sat for the portrait in his Palm Beach estate in December 1962, a location reflected in the sunny shades of yellow, aqua and green.
While artist Nelson Shanks was no stranger to portraying important public figures—including royalty, world leaders and popes—his portrait of President Bill Clinton may be his most talked-about. The symbolism he chose, while visually subtle, spoke volumes. The artist said in a 2015 interview that he painted a shadow along the mantle symbolizing the infamous blue dress worn by former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, whose sexual relationship with Clinton led to his impeachment—and cast a dark shadow over his presidential legacy. Another notable aspect of the portrait: the president’s lack of his wedding ring. The Clintons, Shanks said, “hate the portrait.”
President Theodore Roosevelt was less than fond of his first official portrait, painted by artist Theobald Chartran. After his family teased him that it resembled a “mewing cat,” Roosevelt, who cultivated a rough-and-tumble cowboy image, ultimately destroyed the canvas. He then commissioned his portrait from renowned society artist John Singer Sargent, widely considered one of America’s greatest portrait painters of all time.
Lyndon B. Johnson
Artist Peter Hurd was commissioned to make an official portrait of President Lyndon Johnson for the White House. But when the president saw the end result he called it “the ugliest thing [he] ever saw.” Hurd kept the portrait and when the National Portrait Gallery opened in 1968, he gave it to the museum to display with other presidential portraits only after LBJ left office in 1969.
Artist George Peter Alexander Healy painted this canvas in 1869, a few years after President Lincoln’s assassination. In order to complete this final portrait, he had to rely on other, previous portraits. One image this painting clearly derives from is another one of Healy’s paintings called The Peacemakers, which features Lincoln discussing strategy with Generals William T. Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant, and Admiral David D. Porter near the end of the Civil War.
Does this look familiar? Painter Gilbert Stuart set the standard for presidential portraits with this 1797 image of Washington. While most artists had depicted the nation’s founding father in a militaristic role, Stuart was the first to paint him in the presidential one. The painting stands 8 feet high, and has been a White House staple since 1800. (In 1814, when the British stormed Washington and burned many of its key buildings, then-First Lady Dolly Madison rescued the painting by having it rolled up and removed from the White House just before it went up in flames.) Since 1869, a bust-length version has been used as the portrait on the $1 bill, making it one of the most reproduced images in history.