A note about a Presidential Portrait.

John Quincy Adams, By George Caleb Bingham, ca. 1850, from an 1844 original. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

I was very humored in a tid-bit I found in my current reading of a biography of the realist painter George Caleb Bingham.

For a period of time in the mid 1800’s Bingham moved to a then muddy and under construction Washington D.C.  With a portrait studio on Pennsylvania Avenue, he took various commission including that of a current member of congress from Massachusetts in 1844, John Quincy Adams (who would be our 6th president).

Apparently Adams, a tireless keeper of diaries wrote:  “From half past 9 o’clock I sat to Mr. John Cranch and Mr. Bingham who occupy jointly the painting room for my portrait.” Adams would list five other sittings.  On May 21st he remarked, “neither… is likely to make out either a strong likeness or a fine picture.”  Everyone is a critic, just imagine if that is the person you are painting!

Another painting of Adams, this one by George Peter Alexander Healy (1813 – 1894)

Bingham would make three portraits of Adams, this one being the earliest.  What floored me was Adams grouchy attitude could likely be because he would have to sit for FOURTY-FIVE artists in his lifetime.  He pondered in his diary “another man lives who has been so woefully and so variously bedaubed as I have been.”

So, if you are someone of note, maybe there are some advantages to having a camera around. But hey, Kodak did put a lot of portrait painters out of business.

(This info is from: Painter on the Frontier The Life and Times of George Caleb Bingham by Alberta Wilson Constant. See- not everything can be found on the internet.)

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About abiggerworldyet

Visual Artist Brother Sojourner College Professor Christ follower
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3 Responses to A note about a Presidential Portrait.

  1. Jim Cooke says:

    Delighted with your posting on the JQA portrait! I shall read that book on the artist, George Caleb Bingham.

    I perform a one-man play, “John Quincy Adams: A Spirit Unconquerable!” My focus is on the last decade of this remarkable man’s extraordinary life. Therein we see Adams as he sits for what he believes will be his “last portrait.” He shares the events of those years: Fighting the ‘Gag Rule,’ defending the Amistad Africans before the Supreme Court, protecting James Smithson’s generous bequest from “political jackals” and the dedication of America’s first astronomical observatory. His insights, opinions, harsh judgments and observations continue to amuse and astound.

    If you visit Quincy, Massachusetts stop by the First Parish Church or “Church of the Presidents.” See the crypt containing all that was mortal of John Quincy Adams, his wife, his father and his indomitable mother, Abigail. You must also view Hiram Powers’ bust of JQA who wrote a sonnet commending the sculptor for giving “the lifeless block a breathing soul.”

    • abiggerworldyet says:

      Jim thanks so much for your thoughtful comments about JQA. You taught me a lot about him! I’ve never been to Massachusetts but will have to visit the crypt if I get there. Did JQA commend the sculptor for the likeness that was used at his grave? If so it’s nice to hear that he liked at least some of the images made of him.

  2. Jim Cooke says:

    I believe JQA appreciated artists; perhaps even enjoyed their company. (You note how many times he sat for his portrait.) Daniel Webster claimed to dislike being painted comparing artists to horse flies, “Shoo them off on one side and they come back on the other!” From my reading of JQA it seems an artist had only to ask and he would sit for him – or, her.

    “After the adjournment of the House I walked over and gave a sitting to Mrs. Towle, during which once or twice I fell asleep. This infirmity of old age frequently happens to mortify my pride and remind me how near I am to the Last Scene of All. I told her my objection to her painting is that it was too much like the original.”

    Elsewhere –

    “I question whether another man who lives has been so woefully and variously bedaubed as I have been. The features of my old age are such as I have no wish to have transmitted to the next. They are harsh and stern beyond the true portraiture of the heart; and there is no intellect in them to redeem their repulsive severity.”

    JQA was 70 when he sat for Hiram Powers. It is this bust that is on view in Quincy’s First Parish Church – eight miles south of Boston. I think this poem, dedicated to Powers, is considerable commendation.

    “Sculptor, thy hand has moulded into form
    The haggard features of a toil-worn face;
    And whosoever views thy work shall trace
    An age of Sorrow and a Life of Storm.
    And, canst thou mould the Heart? for that…… is warm;
    Glowing with tenderness for all its race:
    Instinct with all the Sympathies that grace
    The pure and artless bosoms where they swarm.
    Artist! may Fortune smile upon thy hand!
    Go forth, and rival Greece’s art sublime:
    Return….and bid the statesmen of thy Land
    Live in thy marble through all after-time.
    Oh! snatch the fire from Heaven Prometheus stole;
    And give the lifeless block, a breathing Soul.”

    I am guessing you have Andrew Oliver’s “Portraits of John Quincy Adams and His Wife” (1970)? Have you read “Portrait and Pageant – Kings, Presidents and People” (1944) by Frank O. Salisbury?

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