The durability of fame is not always easy to understand.
Two great advantages in keeping one's listing in the annals of history are a large corpus of written work, such as that by Thomas Jefferson, and a great number of portraits, such as is the case with Andrew Jackson.
Now the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery offers, through Jan. 13, "Old Hickory: A Life Sketch of Andrew Jackson." As is its habit, the Portrait Gallery does a grand job at showing the man behind the face on the $20 bill.
Jackson's distinctive physiognomy is shown in or on more than 70 paintings, engravings, political cartoons, vases, ribbons, gold medals, a treasury note, the frigate Constitution's figurehead, a tortoise-shell comb and an ivory cameo brooch. His image is fleshed out by maps, letters, dueling pistols (used), gold spectacles, white beaver hat and his general's uniform. His wife, his friends and his enemies are also portrayed.
"We 'know' the mature Jackson better than practically any of his contemporaries though the extraordinary pictorial record," writes Alan Fern, the Portrait Gallery's director, in the informative catalogue. Jackson was the first president from the "ordinary citizenry" to win the post, Fern adds, "in a hotly contested election."
The seventh president had many faces, most surely on exhibit here. He was a swashbuckling politician and soldier. The people hailed him as the victor of the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812. Admirers hailed him as territorial governor of Florida. The taxpayers praised him for paying off the national debt, for the first and the last time.
"Even after Old Hickory died, some men tried to vote for him as President during the crisis of 1860," Jackson biographer Robert V. Remini explains in the catalogue introduction, "as though by their collective vote they could raise him from the grave to help the nation escape the horrors of approaching disunion and civil war."
Yet this exhibit is not an apotheosis. Nor should it be. Jackson forced the removal of American Indians from east of the Mississippi on the unspeakably cruel "Trail of Tears." The Senate censured him for abusing executive powers. The voters blamed him for the Panic of 1837. Proper society shunned him as sullied by sex scandals. Curator James G. Barber adroitly gives the details in the fascinating and full captions in both show and catalogue.
Jackson's "bayonet diplomacy" appeal is easy to see in the 1819 conquering hero and his horse painted in oil by Thomas Sully. Another painting by Sully is the prototype of the $20 bill. In 1845, a month after Jackson's death, Sully painted yet another romantic portrait of the idol, pompadour rampant.
Sully and others painted Jackson fresh from defending his conduct in the Seminole War of 1818. Jackson had put down Indian uprisings in Florida, expelled the Spanish and executed two British subjects. Charles Willson Peale painted him as a handsome, thoughtful man. But his son Rembrandt Peale gave Jackson a somewhat dubious, pursed mouth that seems to be sewn shut, rather badly.
Later Hiram Powers and Ferdinand Pettrich made busts of Jackson. A statuette of Clark Mills's bronze statue of Jackson now in Lafayette Square repeats the salute of man and horse to his troops before the New Orleans battle.
No contemporary president should feel vilified by cartoonists after seeing what Jackson elicited. David Claypoole Johnston drew Jackson in 1828 with naked corpses for a face, more bodies for his epaulet, cannons for coat collars, a tent for a hat. He borrowed his caption from Shakespeare's "Richard III": "Methought the souls of all that I had murder'd came to my tent."
Rachel Donelson Robards Jackson appears rather daunted in the watercolor-on-ivory portrait by Louisa Catherine Strobel. Jackson was said to have worn the miniature about his neck. Ralph E.W. Earl painted Rachel as dour and disapproving in an 1827 oil, appropriately accompanied here by her famous remark: "I assure you, I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of God than to live in that palace at Washington."
Rachel Jackson had been married to Lewis Robards, who sued for divorce in 1790. The Jacksons claimed they thought the divorce final and married in 1791. But when it became generally known that she wasn't properly divorced, they had to marry again in 1794. Of course, her so-called bigamy was used to discredit Jackson in the 1828 election. She died, some say of mortification, just after he was elected. The exhibit does include the Jacksons' 1794 marriage bond, but there is no trace of a 1791 marriage document, Barber says.
Plump, pretty Peggy Eaton in her bonnet and bow smiles with a certain self-satisfaction from Henry Inman's oil on canvas. Like Andrew and Rachel Jackson, Peggy and John Henry Eaton met when he lodged in her father's boarding house. At that time she was married to John B. Timberlake. Ten years later, after her husband was rumored to have committed suicide, Peggy and Secretary of War John Eaton were married on Jan. 1, 1829.
Jackson, remembering the innuendoes about his own wife's virtue, defended Peggy's. Even so, the wives of some Cabinet members refused to attend White House functions with the Eatons.
Jackson's enemies are in force here, as in life. Jackson hated Speaker of the House Henry Clay after he denounced Jackson for his invasion of Spanish West Florida. George P.A. Healy painted Clay's head as barely escaping from his big bow tie, his hair disheveled, his eyes steadfast, his mouth holding tight to his thoughts.
John Quincy Adams, defeated for a second term by Jackson, was painted by Chester Harding with a wise-owl bald head and a stiff-collared neck. It's not difficult to see why, despite Adams's learned experience and Jackson's impulsive follies, Jackson was the people's choice.
His friends are in the show too. Francis Preston Blair is of special interest. The editor of the Washington Globe was the cook of Jackson's Kitchen Cabinet, as his unofficial advisers were called. Blair repaid Jackson's friendship by lending him money in 1842. Jackson, in turn, left his "papers and reputation" in Blair's keeping. Blair's house on Pennsylvania Avenue is now the president's guest house. His descendants still flourish in the area.
The poignant portrait of Pushmataha may be the exhibit's most haunting image. Charles Bird King painted the Choctaw chief in a marvelous tall feathered hat and golden epaulets, his costume to meet the Marquis de Lafayette in 1824, shortly before his death. Pushmataha had counted himself as a friend of Jackson, but later charged that he and his tribe had been deceived, that the territory they were offered west of the Mississippi was wasteland.
The exhibition, supported in part by a grant from the Tennessee General Assembly, will go from the National Portrait Gallery, Eighth and F streets NW, to the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville.