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National Portrait Gallery taking 'Portraits of the Presidents' on tour

George Washington
This circa 1853 "porthole portrait" of George Washington (1732-1799) by artist Rembrandt Peale is based on one he did at age 17  

In this story:

Interactive Gallery: See the portraits

A 'promiscuous sitter'

JFK: abstract expressionism

Artists and presidential egos

RELATED STORIES, SITES Downward pointing arrow

(CNN) -- The National Portrait Gallery may be closed for renovations, but it's getting mileage out of its collections by putting them on the road.

The gallery's first-ever traveling exhibit, which launches a month before the November elections, showcases presidential portraits.

They are to make the rounds of several presidential libraries and museums, beginning with the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum in College Station, Texas, on October 6.

Schedule of the 'Portraits of the Presidents' tour

The Smithsonian Institution gallery chose 61 of the 1,200 paintings, sculptures, photographs and other renderings of the 42 United States presidents to include in the show. Among the works are Rembrandt Peale's oil painting of George Washington, done in 1796. Peale was 17 years old when he was commissioned to do the painting, "totally an unknown," says historian Fred Voss.

How did such an untested artist get the job?

"The reason that he got a sitting with Washington was that his father was Charles Wilson Peale, a very prominent American artist, a friend of the revolution," Voss says. "On the morning of the sitting, he (Rembrandt) was so frightened about confronting the great man, that he said he could barely mix his colors. And so his father had to come along to hold his hand, so to speak."

Voss says he considers a portrait of Thomas Jefferson, done by Mather Brown for John Adams, one of the most riveting.

Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)
Mather Brown, oil on canvas, 1786

"It was done in England in 1786, and the reason that it sends chills up and down my spine is because it is a ... portrait of a future president, and it was done for John Adams and hung in John Adams' house for many years."

A 'promiscuous sitter'

Voss says he's equally in awe of a portrait of Adams' descendent John Quincy Adams, by George Caleb Bingham.

"(I) think George Caleb Bingham captured him to a tee," he says. "He captured this crusty, determined old New Englander, in about four years before he died, just perfectly. You really do get a sense of determination and stubbornness that characterized John Quincy Adams."

Determining which likeness of John Quincy Adams to put on tour may have been difficult for curators.

"You might call him a promiscuous sitter," Voss jokes. "He would sit for just about any artist in the last 10 years of his life. He sat for ... George Caleb Bingham, who was virtually an unknown artist. Adams recorded in his diary that he didn't think he was going to make a good likeness or a good picture. But as far as I am concerned, he did both."

JFK: abstract expressionism

The exhibit also boasts one of the last photographs of Abraham Lincoln, taken by Alexander Gardner, as well as a painting of Franklin D. Roosevelt, in the final year of his life. That portrait was supposed to be used to create a larger painting of the three Allied leaders who attended the 1945 Yalta Conference: Roosevelt, Britain's Winston Churchill and the Soviet Union's Joseph Stalin.

Of the more recent presidential portraits, Voss calls the one of George Bush by Ron Sherr "one of the best."

"It is a formal portrait done in a very formal way," he says. "But what interests me is that Sherr, in contemplating this portrait for the portrait gallery, had a consciousness of how it will be viewed here. While he put Bush in this grand setting in the White House, ... there is a sense of approachability to this portrait, a warmth; there is an engaging quality about it."

Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)
Alexander Gardner, photograph, albumen silver print, 1865

The portrait of John F. Kennedy is one of the most unusual, Voss says. Painted by Elaine de Kooning, who came out of the American abstract expressionist movement, the portrait "is very rooted in the realist tradition," Voss says. "You can look at it and know that it is Kennedy. It has the traits of abstract expressionism in its very spontaneous -- almost chaotic -- brushwork (and) its use of vivid color."

Artists and presidential egos

Sometimes the stories behind the portraits are as interesting as the paintings themselves. Take Peter Herd's portrait of Lyndon B. Johnson.

"The relationship between Johnson and Herd started out as a love fest," Voss says. "Johnson loved the cover that he did for TIME magazine. And on the basis of that, he decided that Herd should be his official White House portraitist. So Herd proceeded to arrange for sittings, and the story of this love fest is downhill from there.

"Johnson, for starters, was not good at the sittings. At one, he fell asleep. At another sitting, he would not sit still -- he was pacing and was too busy talking with one of his advisers. And then in the final chapter, at the private unveiling of this portrait at the Johnson ranch, the first thing that Johnson said was, 'That's the ugliest thing I have ever saw.' And so ended the ... sweet relationship between Johnson and Herd."

Artist Norman Rockwell erred on the side of caution when painting Richard Nixon's portrait. Rockwell said he flattered the president's "troublesomely elusive face" because if he were going to miss the mark, he at least wanted it to be in a positive direction.

In the portrait, Nixon looks relaxed and mellow, Voss notes. He'd just been elected president in 1968.

"This is a golden moment for every president, and maybe particularly for Richard Nixon, because he had been written off as a washed-up politician, and here he is president-elect in 1968," Voss says. "When you are president-elect, you have the best of all worlds: the satisfaction of looking forward to being in office, but you don't have any of responsibilities of the office."

The National Portrait Gallery plans to launch three more traveling exhibits over the next four years while renovations to the Patent Office Building are being completed. They include an exhibition of paintings, "A Brush with History"; "Women of Our Time," a collection of photographs; and "Modern American Portrait Drawings."

Political Associate Producer Tory Flowers contributed to this report, written by Mary-Jo Lipman.

Norman Lear plans traveling show for U.S. Declaration of Independence
June 30, 2000

The National Portrait Gallery
George Bush Presidential Library and Museum
Harry S. Truman Library
Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum
Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum
Memphis Brooks Museum of Art
North Carolina Museum of History
Virginia Historical Society

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