Have you ever thought about it ---- How do we know what our earliest presidents looked like? Hmm! Well? There is no one living today who has ever seen our early presidents in person. So, think about it! How DO we know what our early presidents REALLY looked like?
To date, the answer is --- portraits. All of our U.S. presidents have had their portrait painted. There are official portraits for 44 of our presidents. And there will be a portrait of President Donald Trump, our 45th president, in the near future.
It’s easy to find portraits of early U.S. presidents like ---
George Washington - painted by Gilbert Stewart
John Adams - painted by John Trumbull
Thomas Jefferson - painted by Mather Brown
James Madison – painted by Chester Harding
James Monroe – painted by John Vanderlyn
John Quincy Adams – painted by William Hudson, Jr.
Alexander Hamilton - painted by John Trumbull
WAIT! Alexander Hamilton was never President of the United States! Please remove his name from this list!
OK! Where can you find portraits of the U.S. presidents?
One really good place is at the National Portrait Gallery here in Washington, DC. The Portrait Gallery is part of the Smithsonian Institution. It was created by an Act of Congress in 1962 and opened to visitors in 1968. It owns a complete set of presidential portraits. And they are quite interesting! I know they sound completely and totally boring!! But they are not!!
From looking at the portraits of our early presidents the viewer can learn a lot about life in days past:
the popular hairstyles,
when ruffles for men were the “in” thing,
who had a beard and who didn’t,
even what different ages looked like during different periods of our history
It’s really fascinating to "read" these portraits!! Our early presidents have much to tell us.
But, sometimes things are not what they seem. The artist might have taken out the stress in a president’s face or added a smile when there wasn’t one. In some of the presidential portraits the artist placed objects around that are intended to give you a certain message about the man being pictured. In other words, portraits are not always totally reliable!
Wouldn’t it be really nice to have photographs of our earliest presidents? Then we might get a more honest look at these important men in our nation’s history.
Well, we will soon have this opportunity!!
The National Portrait Gallery has acquired a 5” x 4” daguerreotype of President John Quincy Adams, the 6th President of the United States. It is the earliest known photograph of a U.S. president. It was taken in 1843 by Philip Haas just four years after Louis Daguerre introduced his radical invention to the world. (Mr. Adams documented the portrait session in his daily diary.)
President John Quincy Adams was the ---
· last president to have a direct connection back to the Founding Fathers or the first president not to have been a founding father.
· first son of a former president to be elected president (His dad was our 2nd president, John Adams.).
· first to marry a woman born outside the United States.
· first president to go skinny dipping in the Potomac River (which he reportedly did daily!).
· president who formally create the position of White House Gardener (which was filled by “our” Mr. John Ousley from Ireland.).
· and now, he is first president of whom we have surviving photos!
It will be great to see what such a man REALLY looked like!!
The John Quincy Adams daguerreotype will go on view here in the America’s Presidents Exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery later this year. The date is yet to be announced.
We look forward to seeing you in the Gallery!
PS - While you’re in the Gallery to see John Qunicy Adams, in daguerreotype and in portrait also, take a look at the portraits of Theodore Roosevelt and Lyndon Baines Johnson, two other presidents we like to talk about a lot. The reports are that both presidents hated their portrait! Here are links to some information about their run-ins with portraiture!
In February of this year the National Portrait Gallery unveiled and added the official portraits of President Barak Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama to their collection. These two new portraits are thought to be more hip and interesting than almost any of the other presidential likenesses.
The collection of first lady portraits is still incomplete; commissioning new ones started only in 2006.
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