Official Presidential Portraits: From Worst to Less Worst

In light of the new presidential portrait unveiling, I started researching presidential portraits of the past. (I also may or may not have been stuck in bed all day with the flu and had a bit of time on my hands.) As a portrait artist who makes a living off of evaluating people’s art, I figured… let’s JUDGE THEM ALL!

(All images from The White House Historical Association.)

William Henry Harrison, by James Reid Lambdin

No. No no no. Where is his brain? Undersized skull. CLASSIC ERROR.

Andrew Jackson, by Ralph E.W. Earl

WHOSE NECK IS THAT LONG? NO ONE’S NECK IS THAT LONG! His widow’s peak is also off-center.

Herbert Hoover, by Elmer W. Greene

As we enter the age of presidents who have ample photographic reference of their faces, likeness becomes more and more important in these portraits. This doesn’t look a damn thing like Herbert Hoover. Hoover’s eyes were wider set, the dent in his chin is more prominent, and it appears throughout all stages of his life, he had a wider face. The overall head shape is off here, too Bert and not enough Ernie. Hoover’s characteristic eyebrows are lost, his upper lip is too wide. UGH. I cannot. That said. We have photographic reference here that we didn’t have for earlier presidents. Without this, I wouldn’t have to be so judgy. Plus for rendering on that hand!

John Quincy Adams, by George Peter Alexander Healy

Proportions are off on his right arm.

James Monroe, by Samuel F.B. Morse

What is up with his left eye socket??

James Madison, by John Vanderlyn

Skull is unrealistically proportioned to face. Murderous glare isn’t very presidential.

James K. Polk, by George Peter Alexander Healy

ANOTHER Healy? Neck is unrealistically long. James K. Polk also swears he will not murder you in his sleep.

Zachary Taylor, by Joseph H. Bush

Refreshing style, skull is too small, hand unnaturally grips sword.

Millard Filmore, by George Peter Alexander Healy

The light background behind his face doesn’t create enough value contrast. The edge of his right cheek is especially lost. I’m not even going to talk about Healy’s arms anymore.

Chester A. Arthur, by Daniel Huntington

Right arm is much longer than left, hand sits at unnatural angle. Flat modeling on face.

Richard M. Nixon, by James Anthony Wills

Likeness is off. Eyes are too wide apart, bottom half of face is too tapered, skull is too wide. Eyebrows are too thick, nose is misshapen (Nixon’s nose is thinner at top and widens suddenly towards the bottom.)

Ulysses S Grant, by Henry Ulke

Grant’s hand is too small in proportion to his face. Modeling on forehead gives the illusion that the right side of his forehead is flatter than his left. Back of head seems truncated.

Warren G. Harding, by E. Hodgson Smart

Left eye is too low, mouth skewed to the left (his left). I mostly can’t get over how the background looks like cheaply painted velvet. Side note: Smart was British. Harding couldn’t find an American painter he liked??

Andrew Johnson, by Eliphalet F. Andrews

No major issues here beyond a lack of full value contrast. Neck is slightly elongated, ears are uneven. Now let’s just note how awesome a name ELIPHALET is. Bring it back!

Gerald R. Ford, by Everett Kinstler

Oh Kinstler! I love you, but that arm distortion (right forearm too long) knocks you down a peg. Head is askew on shoulders.

John Tyler, by George Peter Alexander Healy

How did Healy get all this work? Sheesh. Really dynamic and original pose. Tyler’s right shoulder seems to be out of the socket. Could be a structured jacket, but upper arm seems too long. OH HEALY.

Calvin Coolidge, by Charles S. Hopkinson

Well, he wasn’t aiming to flatter, but not a lot of issues here. Left eye higher than right. On his right hand his pointer finger and middle finger seem to share a knuckle. Hands are hard, amirite?

Lyndon B. Johnson, by Elizabeth Shoumatoff

Absolutely zero problem with likeness. I just can’t get over those hard-edged clouds, which also have too much value and color similarity to face to create contrast. She should’ve hired those out. Dated style that looks right at home in the basement of the church I grew up in. But yay lady painter.

Harry S. Truman, by Martha G. Kempton

Yay lady portrait artist! Nothing big about this, left eye slightly higher than right, ellipses on Capitol are off.

Grover Cleveland, by Eastman Johnson

Not awful. Shadows on right arm leave proportions ambiguous… how convenient! Right hand is too small in comparison to left.

Woodrow Wilson, by F. Graham Cootes

Eyes are off-kilter. Hands seem slightly large but within plausibility. Safe composition and staging. Cootes was an illustrator as well as a portrait artist, so I may have bumped this one up in the ranking a little. ^_^

Jimmy Carter, by Herbert E. Abrams

Uh, I don’t know if I can comment here. Because I’ve drawn Jimmy Carter, so I might be a little portrait biased. ::ahemmine’sbetterahem:: I think there’s something to be said about capturing the spirit of a person in a portrait, which messes with the likeness. The distance between his nose and upper lip is short here. His characteristic thick upper lip isn’t visible. His chin is too short. His right eye… looks like Gerald Ford?

George H.W. Bush, by Herbert E. Abrams

Abrams is not the best at capturing a likeness. Bush’s left cheekbone is too high. You see too much of his upper lip, which characteristically protrudes. His eyes are not deep set enough. Side note: Civil War guy from the background painting looks like he’s about to ding Georgey on the side of the head.

Abraham Lincoln, by George Peter Alexander Healy

I knew it was Healy before I even looked at it… why? THOSE ARM PROPORTIONS. But stance, expression, Lincoln-y-ness blah blah fine good.

James A. Garfield, by Calvin Curtis

Not awful. Skull seems slightly truncated, but not impossibly so. We’re seeing a little too much of his right eye. Great value contrast from background.

Rutherford B. Hayes, by Daniel Huntington

Also not awful. His right hand is small in proportion to his face and left hand. Shadow side of face is lost in the background in Rembrandt-ian style. It works.

William Howard Taft, by Anders L. Zorn

Upper left arm is too short… adjust the chair, not the arm, Zorn. Love the painterly looseness, although the stripe of pattern on the back wall intersecting Taft’s head creates a distracting tangent. Lighting is lovely. Expression is not.

Benjamin Harrison, by Eastman Johnson

Could use more value contrast between face and background, left eye is higher than right.

William McKinley, by Harriet Murphy

Left eye is at different angle than right eye, mouth is shifted left of center (his left). Note: Harriet Murphy appears to be the first female to paint a presidential portrait. Although I had trouble finding additional information on her in a quick search, according to The Smithsonian, she was apparently married to William Daniel Murphy, also a portrait painter, affirming “Harriet” is, in fact, a woman’s name, in this case.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, by Frank O. Salisbury

Okay, seriously, no one seems to care when presidents choose British artists to complete their portraits? This portrait appears very modern for an artist who hated modern art, but I have no issues with it.

Ronald Reagan, by Everett Kinstler

Kinstler again. This captures a spirit. Reagan’s right eye is too high. That column in the background is going to tip over. I don’t hate it.

William J. Clinton, by Sammie Knox

First black artist to receive a presidential portrait commission. Refreshing style. Nose is too small. Offset left eye is too offset. Symmetry for the win.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, by James Anthony Wills

I got nothin’. This is solid. Dated style? The green color is kinda gross, I guess?

James Buchanan, by John Henry Brown

Wow, style ahead. Of. Its. Time. Striking, emotive, and Buchanan fades into oblivion like the remembrance of his presidency.

Martin Van Buren, by George Peter Alexander Healy

I guess Healy eventually learned arm proportions.

Franklin Pierce, by George Peter Alexander Healy

ZOW! Healy! You surprise me! And is that the same chair as the JQA portrait? That’s kinda neat. No issues with this one. Probably because you hid the arms.

George Washington, by Gilbert Stuart

The classic. No major issues with this one except the tangent between the feather and Washington’s right hand bugs me.

George W. Bush, by John Howard Sanden

Very few issues with this, although I’ve seen better from Sanden with more dimensionality in the face. Simplicity in the background would help the subject matter stand out further. However, Sanden’s complementary portrait of Laura Bush has likeness issues.

John Adams, by John Trumbull

Really love the sensitivity on the collar and ruddiness in the face.

Barack Obama — Kehinde Wiley

There’s only one issue I have: there is a line on Obama’s chin, his left side, that drags into a poorly placed piece of shadow behind his left shoulder. It really bugs me. My thoughts about Kehinde Wiley hiring painting minions aside (hopefully not for THIS), massive points for originality and showing realism in a contemporary style, without abandoning likeness. Stylizing color through oversaturation is matter of subjectivity. Face shows enough value contrast to stand out from background, regardless of color. I look forward to children of the future seeing this portrait and imagining the magical time when presidents danced in forests of exotic flowers and wondering why the rest of the presidents didn’t do this.

Theodore Roosevelt, by John Singer Sargent

As Roosevelt himself said about Sargent’s portrait, “I like his picture enormously.”

John F. Kennedy, by Aaron Shikler

Shikler was really a master at capturing mood, likeness, and the perfect mix of abstraction and realism.

Thomas Jefferson, by Rembrant Peale

Depth and complexity of shadows and ruddish tones on face, plus capture of expression = A+

Illustrator : Assistant Professor of Art : ATLien @catamooreart catherineamoore.com