Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Art, Portraits, and Presidents

This trailer for an exhibit from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts titled Peace, Liberty, and Independence": 225 Years After the Treaty of Paris considers the impact of art on the American Revolution.

The video highlights this painting of George Washington by Charles Willson Peale. The painting was one of several portraits Peale would paint of Washington. His most famous was the 1779 portrait shown in the video, which was titled Washington at Princeton. It was commissioned by the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania. The painting was so popular, Peale would make 18 copies, one of which hangs in the United Stated Senate chamber today.

This portrait of Washington painted by Peale in 1776 carries even more symbolic value. This painting was commissioned by John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress in 1776 after Washington lead the Continental Army in their surprising route of British troops from Boston. Peale completed the portrait on June 1, 1776, the day the Continental Congress voted on independence.

Peale travel to London in 1767 when he was 26 years old where he studied under Benjamin West for two years. In a series of postings on other blogs (listed below), I have written about Benjamin West's work as a history painter.

Today, portraiture is more of a ritual than a genuine artistic or historical expression. A review the recent history of presidential portrait paintings bears this out. The official home of presidential portraits is the Smithsonian Institute's National Portrait Gallery. Selections from the collection are often displayed in the White House. Presidential portraits today are painted from photographs taken during the presidency. The paintings are then unveiled at the end of a presidents term. This official digital portrait of President Obama may be used to paint his portrait.

The Obamas placed their artist mark on the White House with their choices for display. This work from artist Edward Ruscha titled “I think maybe I’ll…" was selected by the Obamas for display in the White House. It is one of over 450 works of art on display in the White house.

The Library of Congress also maintains an online collection of presidential portraits through its American Memory project. The collection titled By Popular Demand: Portraits of the Presidents and First Ladies 1789 to present includes 156 images in a variety of forms "include small engraved illustrations, prints based on paintings and daguerreotypes, large woodcut campaign banners, elegants mezzotints, and color lithographs" (see about the collection for more).

Friday, July 24, 2009

When presidets misspeak

Wednesday night at the end of a hour press conference on the debate over health care, president Obama offered a comment on the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates. The arrest for disorderly conduct occurred after police responded to a report that two men were attempting to break into the Gates home. It was in fact Gates who had misplaced his keys after return from a trip to China who was breaking into his own home. The charges against Gates were subsequently dropped and Wednesday night president Obama offered this.

Today, president Obama offered new comments today.

Of course, president Obama is not the first president to misspeak. Presidents Nixon and Clinton, in recent history, made what were probably the most grievous missteps with comments on accusations against them. President Obama's comments on the Gates arrest were not near as consequential as Nixon's and Clinton's, but other presidents have similarly misspoken.

President Thomas Jefferson famously "misspoke" when he wrote in the 1798 Kentucky resolutions tat sovereignty rested in the states.

Later, then president James Madison said of Jefferson's ideas, “Allowances also ought to be made for a habit in Mr. Jefferson as in others of great genius of expressing in strong and round terms, impressions of the moment.”

Seventy years later, president Ulysses S. Grant delivered this rambling excuse for ineptitude in his eighth and last state of the union address to Congress on December 5, 1876.

"It was my fortune, or misfortune, to be called to the office of Chief Executive without any previous political training. From the age of 17 I had never even witnessed the excitement attending a Presidential campaign but twice antecedent to my own candidacy, and at but one of them was I eligible as a voter.

Under such circumstances it is but reasonable to suppose that errors of judgment must have occurred. Even had they not, differences of opinion between the Executive, bound by an oath to the strict performance of his duties, and writers and debaters must have arisen. It is not necessarily evidence of blunder on the part of the Executive because there are these differences of views. Mistakes have been made, as all can see and I admit, but it seems to me oftener in the selections made of the assistants appointed to aid in carrying out the various duties of administering the Government--in nearly every case selected without a personal acquaintance with the appointee, but upon recommendations of the representatives chosen directly by the people. It is impossible, where so many trusts are to be allotted, that the right parties should be chosen in every instance. History shows that no Administration from the time of Washington to the present has been free from these mistakes. But I leave comparisons to history, claiming only that I have acted in every instance from a conscientious desire to do what was right, constitutional, within the law, and for the very best interests of the whole people. Failures have been errors of judgment, not of intent."