Portraits of presidents of the United States

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Gilbert Stuart was the first painter to paint a presidential portrait.

Beginning with Gilbert Stuart's portrait of George Washington, it has been traditional for the president of the United States to have an official portrait taken during his time in office, most commonly an oil painting. This tradition has continued to modern times, although since the adoption of photography as a widely used and reliable technology, the official portrait may also be a photograph (or at least a photograph may be substituted while a painting is being made). Currently, an official oil portrait is commissioned after the presidential term is finished, and takes one or two years to be finished.[1]

Presidents often display the official portraits of other presidents whom they admire in the Oval Office or elsewhere around the White House, loaned from the National Portrait Gallery.

In 2018 President Donald Trump signed Public Law 115-158, which prohibits the use of federal funds to pay for an official portrait of any federal official or officer, including the president, the vice president, a member of Congress, the head of an executive agency, or the head of an office of the legislative branch. Since most recent presidential portraits have been privately funded anyway, this law will primarily prevent other governmental officers such as agency heads and speakers of the House from commissioning official portraits using federal funds.[2][3]


George Washington[edit]

The presidential portrait of George Washington was famously rescued by First Lady Dolley Madison when the British burned down the White House in the War of 1812.[4]

Theodore Roosevelt[edit]

President Theodore Roosevelt's official portrait was originally commissioned to Théobald Chartran in 1902, but when Roosevelt saw the final product he hated it and hid it in the darkest corner of the White House. When family members called it the "Mewing Cat" for making him look so harmless, he had it destroyed and hired John Singer Sargent to paint a more masculine portrait.[5][6]

Sargent followed Roosevelt around the rooms of the White House, making sketches looking for the right lighting and pose, but was unhappy with them. When Roosevelt headed toward a staircase to try the rooms on the second level, both of their patience was running thin. Roosevelt suggested that Sargent didn't have a clue what he (Sargent) wanted. Sargent responded that Roosevelt didn't know what was needed to pose for a portrait. Roosevelt having reached the landing, planted his hand on the balustrade post, and turned to Sargent angrily demanding "Don't I?!" And the perfect pose had been found.[7]

Roosevelt, always active, only agreed to stay still for half an hour a day, after lunch. But the portrait was eventually finished, and adored by Roosevelt.[6]

Calvin Coolidge[edit]

During Ronald Reagan's presidency, he moved Coolidge's portrait from the Grand Hall into the Cabinet Room next to Thomas Jefferson's portrait. Reagan admired and quoted Coolidge, and thought Coolidge's impressive performance in the "roaring twenties" was outstanding. Reagan believed that Coolidge's portrait was much more suitable next to a founding father.[citation needed]

Herbert Hoover[edit]

President Herbert Hoover's official portrait was completed 23 years after he left office. The first official portrait was painted by John Christen Johansen in 1941. Hoover, however, later commissioned a second portrait that was completed in 1956 by Elmer Wesley Greene. At Hoover's request, this painting replaced the original, and currently stands as the official White House portrait.[8] The Johansen painting now resides at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in West Branch, Iowa.[9]

John F. Kennedy[edit]

White House Curator William G. Allman discusses the inspiration behind Shikler's portrait of John F. Kennedy

President John F. Kennedy's official portrait was painted posthumously by Aaron Shikler at the request of Jacqueline Kennedy in 1970. It is generally analyzed as a character study. Unlike most presidential portraits, Kennedy's depicts the president as pensive, with eyes downcast and arms folded. According to Shikler, Jackie's only stipulation was for him to create an image different from "the way everybody else makes him look, with the bags under his eyes and that penetrating gaze. I'm tired of that image." Shikler drew a few sketches based on photographs, one of which was inspired by Ted Kennedy's somber pose at his brother's grave, his arms crossed and his head bowed. Jackie chose that sketch as the final pose.[10] Shikler also painted the official White House portraits of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and the Kennedy children.

Bill Clinton[edit]

The presidential portrait of Bill Clinton was the first of such portraits to be painted by a black person, Simmie Knox.[11][12]

George W. Bush[edit]

The official White House portrait of George W. Bush was revealed on May 31, 2012.[13] It was painted by John Howard Sanden who also painted the official portrait for First Lady Laura Bush that was revealed at the same time as her husband's portrait. In addition, Bush's portrait for the National Portrait Gallery was uncharacteristically released several weeks before his administration had ended. Painted by Robert A. Anderson, it was unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., on December 19, 2008. President Bush jokingly opened the unveiling with "Welcome to my hanging", which resulted in laughter from the room.[14] This was an official portrait commissioned by the White House, but funded by private donorship.[15]

The caption at the National Portrait Gallery beside President Bush's portrait originally read that his administration was "marked by a series of catastrophic events..." [including] "...the attacks on September 11, 2001, that led to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq." Vermont senator Bernie Sanders wrote a letter to the director of the National Portrait Gallery, noting the link between the terrorist attacks and Iraq had been "debunked". Director Martin E. Sullivan assured him the label would be changed to delete "led to".[16]

Barack Obama[edit]

Members of the USC Institute for Creative Technologies, the Smithsonian Institution, and White House staff discuss the creation of Barack Obama's 3D portrait.

Barack Obama was the first president to have his portrait taken with a digital camera in January 2009 by Pete Souza, the then–official White House photographer,[17] using a Canon EOS 5D Mark II.[citation needed] Obama was also the first president to have 3D portraits taken, which were displayed in the Smithsonian Castle in December 2014.[18]

On Monday February 12, 2018, the official presidential likenesses of Barack Obama and Michelle Obama were unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery.[19] Kehinde Wiley painted Mr. Obama, while Amy Sherald painted Mrs. Obama.[20][21] Different flowers in the background of Barack Obama's painting are symbolic, with chrysanthemums, for example, representing Chicago, and pikake representing Hawaii.[22] The contemporary style of both paintings attracted note for breaking the trend of past presidential portraits being painted in a traditional style.[23][24][25] The Los Angeles Times wrote that both portraits "cheerfully bucked the trend" of "forgettable" recent portraits.[26]

Donald Trump[edit]

The first official presidential portrait of Donald Trump was released the day before his inauguration and was used for the official @POTUS Twitter account[27] until May 5, 2017.

Gallery of presidential portraits[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Heil, Emily. "Don't look for Obama's official portrait anytime soon". Washington Post. Retrieved 2017-09-16.
  2. ^ Bill, Cassidy (2018-03-27). "S.188 - 115th Congress (2017-2018): Eliminating Government-funded Oil-painting Act". www.congress.gov. Retrieved 2018-04-04.
  3. ^ "Trump signs bill barring federal funds to pay for official portraits". POLITICO. Retrieved 2018-04-04.
  4. ^ "The White House Historical Association > Classroom". Whitehousehistory.org. Archived from the original on 2011-10-27. Retrieved 2011-12-03.
  5. ^ Barber, J.; Verone, A. (1998). Theodore Roosevelt, Icon of the American Century. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. p. 50. ISBN 978-0-295-97753-9. Retrieved January 30, 2018.
  6. ^ a b Natasha. "John Singer Sargent's President Theodore Roosevelt". Jssgallery.org. Retrieved 2011-12-03.
  7. ^ Canfield, M.R. (2015). Theodore Roosevelt in the Field. University of Chicago Press. p. 7. ISBN 978-0-226-29840-5. Retrieved January 30, 2018.
  8. ^ Timothy Walch (18 July 2013). Herbert Hoover and Dwight D. Eisenhower: A Documentary History. Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 160–161. ISBN 978-1-137-33409-1.
  9. ^ "National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution". Npgportraits.si.edu. Retrieved March 11, 2015.
  10. ^ Clurman, Shirley (May 4, 1981). "At $25,000-Plus for a Portrait, Painter Aaron Shikler Can Give Critics the Brush". People. Retrieved 13 May 2015.
  11. ^ "White House Portraits of President Clinton and First Lady by Simmie Knox Unveiled; First Painted by a Black Artist". Jet. p. 34. Retrieved January 30, 2018.
  12. ^ "President Bush Welcomes President Clinton and Senator Clinton". Georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov. 2004-06-14. Retrieved 2011-12-03.
  13. ^ "President George W. and Laura Bush Portrait Unveiling". C-SPAN.
  14. ^ "Bush in Philadelphia: 'Welcome to my hanging'". CNN.
  15. ^ "National Portrait Gallery | Portraits of George W. and Laura Bush". Npg.si.edu. Archived from the original on 2008-12-25. Retrieved 2011-12-03.
  16. ^ "The Huffington Post - UK News and Opinion". News.aol.com. Retrieved 2011-12-03.
  17. ^ "New official portrait released Wednesday". change.gov, Office of the President-Elect. January 14, 2009. Archived from the original on September 10, 2011.CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status unknown (link)
  18. ^ Ng, David (December 2, 2014). Smithsonian exhibits 3-D portraits of President Obama. Los Angeles Times .
  19. ^ Cotter, Holland (2018-02-12). "Portraits or Politics? Presidential Likenesses Blend Fact and Fiction". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2018-02-12.
  20. ^ https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/politics-news/barack-obama-s-presidential-portrait-be-unveiled-n847111
  21. ^ https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/12/arts/design/obama-portrait.html
  22. ^ http://time.com/5158961/obama-portrait-kehinde-wiley-amy-sherald-interview/
  23. ^ https://www.newyorker.com/culture/annals-of-appearances/the-mystery-of-amy-sheralds-portrait-of-michelle-obama
  24. ^ https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/16/arts/design/obamas-presidential-portraits.html
  25. ^ https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/13/arts/design/obama-portraits-reaction-what-did-they-mean-to-you.html
  26. ^ http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/la-et-cm-obama-wiley-sherald-20180213-story.html
  27. ^ "Trump actually looks happy in his official White House portrait". Newsweek. October 31, 2017. Retrieved January 30, 2018.

External links[edit]