With the world turning its attention to Washington this long weekend, I find myself thinking of two galleries in two Washington museums. One is a reminder of our nation’s tradition of democratic succession, the other is a reminder of national responsibility (and I’ll talk about that one on Monday).
According to its website, the National Gallery owns 43 Gilbert Stuart portraits. Fifteen of them are now on view in a single West Building gallery, newly installed just in time for the transition of power.
It’s an astonishing gallery, the kind of space that makes the argument for a national gallery of art. Among these Stuarts are the Gibbs-Coolidge Set of the first five presidents (four of whom owned slaves), a key member of the Continental Congress, a member of the 1787 Constitutional convention, a first lady and more. (Blessedly put away in storage for the occasion are uh, fine examples of the portraits the perpetually indebted Stuart made so he could pay off his ever-lengthy bar tab.)
Given Stuart’s propensity for slacking off unless he was painting someone truly important, it’s the five presidential portraits that are the most astonishing. (The only other show-stopper in the gallery is this painting of Abigail Adams.) Not one of them shows a leader crossing the Alps or wearing a continental-style red pin in an effort to remind the viewer of the sitter’s import. Four of the men wear unadorned black coats, while the fifth wears a plain red jacket. None are surrounded by any accouterments or other reminders of power, position or status. All are presented against neutral washes. Each president looks out at the viewer, quietly.
There are no European galleries with such plain presentations of late-18th- or early-19th-century leaders. There couldn’t be: More than a quarter-century after James Monroe gave way to John Quincy Adams, European leaders were still eager to be painted as stuffily as Franz Winterhalter painted Napoleon III or with all the ostentatious pomp in Sir Thomas Lawrence’s presentation George IV. (This portrait, at right and in the collection of the Vatican, was painted in 1816, four years before the then-Prince Regent would ascend to the throne.)
Two hundred years after they were made, Stuart’s portraits are still an effective reminder that Americans were never impressed with monarchical Orders named after frilly garments. Our earliest presidents were all born into privilege, but none were born with a birthright. These Stuarts give notice that Americans do things differently than those Europeans. Let these paintings also help us recall the humility we need to rediscover in order to further the national and intellectual legacy left to us by the men they portray.
Reminder: The National Gallery of Art will be closed on Jan. 20 due to parade assembly areas and Inaugural-related security.