Presidents make big impression on artwork, Butler chief says in talk
By TIMOTHY SEMAN
YOUNGSTOWN — In the final talk of the the Director’s Fall Lecture Series on Sunday afternoon at the Butler Institute of American Art, Dr. Louis Zona discussed the relationship between artists and presidents in all of its different forms.
Some of America’s finest artists have made U.S. presidents the subject matter of remarkable art, Zona said.
A few presidents were handy with the palette themselves.
Rembrandt Peale painted his so-called “porthole” portraits, with a copy of one depicting George Washington, which is in the Butler. Norman Rockwell’s masterpiece of a young Abraham Lincoln is one of the Butler’s prized possessions.
Other works by American artists are numerous, Zona said. There is Gilbert Stuart’s “Landsdown Portrait,” a commissioned portrait of George Washington, the bust of which would be used for the one dollar bill.
John Singer Sargent, who Zona said he believes may be the finest American painter of all time and whose work is found at the Butler, captured an unusual image of President Theodore Roosevelt. But it wasn’t easy. Zona described the impatient and footloose Roosevelt as a rather stingy model for Sargent, who followed the president around with a sketchbook trying to capture his form.
Roosevelt may be that one example of a chief executive who didn’t exactly foster the growth of modern art in the United States. When the International Exhibition of Modern Art brought Modernism to America, the effort to get Americans to appreciate modern art was poorly received by Roosevelt, whose personal tastes led to a public criticism of the exhibition.
But a president can do much to support the arts and the artists. During the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt started the Federal Art Project under the Works Progress Administration to commission artists to paint murals and portraits, decorating government buildings and public spaces. Zona said that this program was a source of pride, and helped to sustain the morale of American artists at a difficult time.
President Lyndon Baines Johnson also used the powered this office to grow the arts. He created the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. To bring art to the nation’s capital, Johnson encouraged Joseph H. Hirshhorn to establish his collection to Washington, now known as the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Zona said.
Zona listed other swell-known American artists and their “presidential” subject matter. Abstract Expressionist artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns included the image of President John F. Kennedy in their artworks to commemorate the president after his assassination. Jamie Wyeth and Aaron Shikler also painted portraits of JFK, and Robert Berk’s bronze sculpture of JFK adorns the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
Ray Kinstler has created portraits of George H. W. Bush, George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan and one of a pre-presidential Donald Trump. Charles Thomas “Chuck” Close developed interesting techniques that would be shown in his paintings of Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Additional abstract techniques are demonstrated by Bob Peak and Andy Warhol in their portraits of President Jimmy Carter.
Of course there are presidents and international leaders who used the brush as self-taught artists. Zona pointed out a few of the well-known examples: Dwight D. Eisenhower, Winston Churchill and George W. Bush. An interesting observation to make of these artworks, whether created by professional artists or the presidents themselves, is that none seem to have any propagandistic characteristics, Zona said. The men are shown without any pretense to power. This may be a reflection of our Republic, and the absence of any need to promote the image of an “imperial presidency,” he said.
Zona concluded his talk with a touching explanation of how the Butler obtained Winslow Homer’s masterpiece, “Snap the Whip.” Deeply affected by the assassination of President William McKinley, Butler Institute founder Joseph G. Butler, a pallbearer at the funeral, sought a work of art that would bring forth memories of better days, when he and the future president played snap the whip as boys. A dealer found the painting, Butler met the asking price, and a masterwork, tinged with deeper meaning, came to Youngstown.