CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post incorrectly described the portrait of Martha Washington in the East Room of the White House as a Gilbert Stuart painting. The artist was Eliphalet Frazer Andrews, who copied an original Stuart portrait of the first lady’s head for the full-length painting. This version has been updated.
Leave it to Laura Bush to sum up the inherent awkwardness of all those presidential portraits in the White House.
“It was really gracious of you to invite us back to the White House to hang a few family pictures,” she told the Obamas in the East Room Thursday. “Nothing makes a house a home like having portraits of its former occupants staring down at you from the walls.”
Especially during a testy election year. But everyone was on their best behavior at this most traditional of presidential rituals: The unveiling of official portraits of George W. Bush and Laura Bush.
Great art? We’re not critics, but we can tell you that both subjects are, at the very least, recognizable.
The 43rd president is depicted in a 3/4 length portrait: He’s in the Oval Office — gray suit, blue tie, just a hint of a smile — with his hand resting on an antique armchair and the 1929 western painting “A Charge to Keep,” by William Koerner, over his shoulder. His first lady looks smaller in her portrait because it’s full length: She’s shown in the Green Room (that’s David Martin’s picture of Ben Franklin behind her) wearing a midnight blue evening gown. She has a smile, too, but the eyes are a little off — steely, with none of her laid back warmth.
The paintings were commissioned, paid for and donated by the White House Historical Association; the former president selected Texas-born artist John Howard Sanden. Bush was so happy with his final product (completed last year) that his wife picked Sanden to paint hers, too; it was finished early this year.
So it was time for the bipartisan lovefest called the unveiling, where current and former presidents say nice things about each other and democracy, leadership and family.
“This is what we’ll think about every time we pass these portraits — just as millions of other visitors will do in the decades, and perhaps even the centuries to come,” President Obama told the guests.
The Obamas invited four generations of Bushs — with former president George H. W. Bush and first lady Barbara, first daughters Jenna and Barbara and several more, we’re told — to the ceremony. The mood was playful: George H.W. (who arrived in a wheelchair) sported red, white and blue socks; Bush administration officials — Colin Powell, John Ashcroft, Donald Rumsfeld, Andy Card, Karen Hughes, Josh Bolten, Lea Berman and Karl Rove (working the crowd like he owned the joint) chatted up a smiling Joe Biden.
The guests of honor looked tan, rested and radiant as they uncovered the two large paintings to hoorahs and applause. The artworks will hang in the public rooms of the White House, a tradition that goes back to the iconic portraits of George and Martha Washington by Eliphalet Frazer Andrews.
“I am pleased that my portrait brings an interesting symmetry to the White House collection,” joked the former president. “It now starts and ends with a George W.”
Eventually, Laura’s portrait will be just down the hall from her mother-in-law’s on the ground floor, and her husband’s close to his father’s on the State Floor. The pictures will hang where portraits of President Clinton and Hillary Clinton currently reside; they’ll shift to where Bush 41 and Barbara Bush hang — but all will remain part of the White House display.
“This was our family’s home for eight years,” said Laura Bush. “It was our home, but it wasn’t our house. This house belongs to the people whose portraits will never hang here, the ordinary and not-so-ordinary people whose lives inspired us and whose expectations guided us during the years that we lived here.”
Can’t get to Washington? You can see the White House portraits (but not Bush 43 quite yet) on a virtual tour of the mansion’s art.
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