America’s Founding Fathers 2

We have already shown on this site that portraits by significant artists often resemble the artist. Almost every European monarch from the fifteenth century onwards has suffered this fate, their portraits looking as much like their artist as themselves. In hiring poets rather than copyists these rulers received a visual poem about the majestic power of the poet's own mind. American artists, especially in the early years of the Republic, are often thought of as being more pedestrian than their European colleagues and more precise about copying nature. One might then expect their portraits to be more accurate. The comparisons already shown (America's Founding Fathers 1) and those below suggest not, though some of the similarities (as in European art, too) are very subtle. America's leaders were as likely to be transformed into an aspect of their artist's mind as statesmen across the pond.

The portrait at far left of Thomas Jefferson was painted by John Trumbull in 1778. Some of Jefferson's features, such as the tip of his nose, are more expressive than Trumbull's but the basics are similar including the proportions of the lower half of the face. If his eyebrows were higher, the overall resemblance would be clearer.

(Trumbull's portrait was begun by Gilbert Stuart and finished by Trumbull himself.)

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Captions for image(s) above:

Left: Trumbull, Thomas Jefferson, detail (1778)

Right: Stuart and Trumbull, Portrait of John Trumbull, detail (started by Stuart and finished by Trumbull)

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Gilbert Stuart, celebrated for his portraits of George Washington, also depicted America's second president, John Adams (far left). Stuart's self-portrait in this comparison is small and sketchy. We can, however, see the same flared nostril in each portrait and the long eyebrow angling diagonally downwards. Note too the bunch of hair by their far cheeks. The hair itself may look different but the same pattern can be as effective in conveying meaning as a duplication of specific features.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Left: Stuart, John Adams, detail (c.1825)

Right: Stuart, Self-Portrait, detail (1786)

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Here is a second portrait of John Adams (far left), this time by Trumbull.  The face itself, the "mask" on the front, is almost identical to Trumbull's with only Adams' corpulent cheeks and shorter eyebrow making them look different. Which of Adams' features are really his own is hard to tell.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Left: Trumbull, John Adams, detail (1793)

Right: Stuart and Trumbull, Portrait of Trumbull, detail (started by Stuart and finished by Trumbull)

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In this portrait of James Madison, Charles Willson Peale posed the future President's head in precisely the same position as his own self-portrait and within the same pear-shape. The contour of the nose as it joins the far eyebrow is identical; their lips are similar too, only varying in that Peale's protrude more.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Left: C.W.Peale, James Madison, detail  (1783)

Right: C.W.Peale, Self-Portrait with Angelica and a Portrait of Rachel, detail (c.1782-5)

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Joseph-Siffred Duplessis, a French artist, fixed the image of Ben Franklin in the popular imagination with this portrait (far left). Here again, the two faces may at first look quite different but they have much in common too.

In a second portrait of Franklin by another French artist Franklin's face changes considerably. It will be discussed in the third entry on America's Founding Fathers, coming soon.

See also America's Founding Fathers 1.

Captions for image(s) above:

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Notes:

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 18 Jan 2011. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.