I’m not sure if I’ve ever mentioned it in this blog, but presidential history is another of my interests. In the past, I’ve referred to it as a hobby, but in some ways that trivializes our nation’s history a bit, makes it sound almost undignified. Learning about the past and about the men who first founded our nation, who fought for its survival, and who have served as its leaders is a fascinating study.
I first became interested in our presidents when I was about nine years old. The World Book Encyclopedia put out a special annual edition that included biographies of all our presidents. I began reading them with a desire to discover what made them great. Perhaps if I emulated them, followed their habits, tried to become more like them, someday I, too, could be great. Not that I ever wanted to become president. I simply wanted to know how to become a great person — meaning, really, a good person. Not someone famous. Not someone out to change the world. Just someone worthy of being called good.
What I found, though, was that the men who had served as our country’s leaders — even our revered founding fathers — were flawed in many ways. While my reading had begun with the question of how these men had become president — in a search to understand some quintessential goodness I believed they possessed — the question soon evolved into, seriously, folks, how did these men become president?
At that point, I was hooked. I wanted to read all I could about these men, about their mistakes, about all the fascinating little facts of their lives. It’s been a very rewarding hobby.
Now, by all rights, I should have posted about our presidents earlier this week. We’ve just celebrated President’s Day, a national holiday created in 1971 to combine celebrations for George Washington (born on February 22) and Abraham Lincoln (born on February 12) and provide Americans with a three-day weekend.
All our presidents have, indeed, had flaws. They’ve had their quirks, their foibles, and their reckless passions. This post isn’t intended to be political in any way. Despite my love of presidential history, this is still an art blog.
Did you know that several of our presidents have been artists? Maybe you’ve seen George W. Bush’s collection of animal paintings, or perhaps you’re familiar with Jimmy Carter’s scenic, naturalistic images. Dwight D. Eisenhower took up painting in his later years and produced over 200 paintings, described as “technically unskilled but demonstrating significant, sincere effort.” Hmmm, sounds a bit like most of my paintings!
The true artist in the group was Ulysses S. Grant. By the way, did you know that his real name was not Ulysses S. Grant? He was born Hiram Grant, and the name change is a fun little story. Look it up when you have a moment. It’s also touching to read about when, where, and how he proposed to his wife, and it’s very interesting to learn about one little quirk that might well have led to his success as a general in the War between the States. Although he became known as “The Butcher”, he was, actually, a sensitive young man who couldn’t stand the sight of blood.
While a success in military matters, Grant failed miserably as president. His life story is definitely worth reading.
We’ve had a few great presidents. I won’t name my picks for that title, but choosing the “greats” is always an interesting preoccupation among those of us who study presidential history. Of course, we’ve had a few real stinkers. Most historians agree that Grant, Buchanan, and Harding belong on that list.
One thing, however, that every president has had in common — from Washington to Trump — is that their portraits hang in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. As an artist, I find it as fascinating to learn about these portraits as it is to read about their lives.
Without doubt, one of the most famous portraits — and probably the most recognized — is the Gilbert Stuart painting of George Washington. This life-sized portrait was completed in 1796. Washington was 64 at the time and was serving his last year as president.
Stuart went on to create portraits of the next five American presidents, as well:
- John Adams
- Thomas Jefferson
- James Madison
- James Monroe
- John Quincy Adams
All of these portraits can be seen at the National Portrait Gallery in a permanent exhibition titled American Presidents. If you’re not able to visit the exhibit, you can view an online presentation here.
Bringing presidential history together with art history… well, for me, that’s a winning ticket. While I don’t speak out about politics, endorse particular candidates, or express any opinions, I do encourage all Americans to get involved in the election process. Be sure you’re registered to vote, and please go to the polls to make your voice heard. Our right to vote is among the most precious rights we have in this great nation.
I encourage each of you, too, to read a bit about the lives of our presidents. Not just the ones everyone knows. Read about Franklin Pierce and the tragedies his family endured. Read about William McKinley and his devotion to his wife. Read about Grover Cleveland, the only president to ever serve two terms unconsecutively. Or read about John Tyler who fathered fifteen children. Or Zachary Taylor who considered politicians to be on about the same level as pond scum.
Oh, just read about them all! You’ll discover fascinating, unforgettable stories.