For centuries, the American public has reveled in the sport of critiquing the official portraits of our presidents.
In each administration since George Washington kicked off the tradition, one or more artists have been selected to capture our commanders in chief, usually in oil on canvas.
These impressionistic renderings of the interiority of our public figures have provided us with an endless source of fascination that has a tendency to turn every citizen into an art critic.
We were reminded of this phenomenon earlier this week when reactions to the newly unveiled portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama began pouring in. Turns out, politics isn’t the only thing that divides our nation—our opinions on art do as well.
While its one thing for American citizens to opine on our national portraits, it’s another thing entirely when the president himself objects to his painted likeness.
That was the tough spot Theodore Roosevelt found himself in after the famous French society portraitist Theobald Chartran was commissioned to paint a portrait of the twenty-sixth president in 1903. As if Roosevelt disliking the result wasn’t bad enough, his kids made matters—and his hurt pride—even worse when they teased him mercilessly about it.
It was an unexpected outcome. When Roosevelt first chose Chartran as his portraitist, the arrangement had every indication of being a success.
The painter had developed his reputation in his home country, where he began his career depicting architecture before he turned his brush to the au courant of society.
In the 1870s and 80s, Vanity Fair commissioned him to paint caricatures of the leading figures of the day, which he signed with a single bold “T”.
After 1893, Chartran began spending several months every year in the U.S., growing his reputation for portraiture on the other side of the Atlantic with successful commissions of Andrew Carnegie, Sarah Bernhardt, and William McKinley (prior to his presidency), among others.
The reviews of Chartran’s work from his big-name patrons were glowing. In one particularly dramatic decree, Pope Leo XIII proclaimed, after seeing a portrait the artist made of him, “Thus would I be looked upon and known by my children in all lands.”
Shortly after Roosevelt assumed the presidency, the French Ambassador was searching for the perfect gift to give to him. Chartran happened to be staying in D.C. as his guest, so the ambassador decided to commission him to paint a portrait of First Lady Edith Roosevelt.
The gift was gratefully accepted by the White House, and it was agreed that the artist would also paint a smaller portrait of Roosevelt’s eldest daughter Alice.
Roosevelt loved the paintings. In a letter from March 11, 1902, he gushed to the ambassador, “Permit me to thank you most heartily for having initiated the picture of Mrs. Roosevelt by Monsieur Chartran. I am simply delighted with it.”
So, the following year, when Roosevelt was trying to pick an artist to paint his official presidential portrait, the decision wasn’t a hard one. Chartran was the man for the job. He got to work at the beginning of 1903.
From the start, the pair encountered difficulties. Chartran found his subject delightful, although a bit hard to work with. The artist told Le Figaro, “It was difficult to get the president to sit still. I never had a more restless or more charming sitter. He speaks French like a boulevardier, and wittily.”
But the feeling wasn’t mutual. On February 1, Roosevelt wrote a letter to his son Kermit in which he reported on the goings on at the White House. In a succinct dismissal, he wrote, “Chartran has been painting my picture. I do not particularly like it.”
When the final portrait was unveiled, Roosevelt’s opinion remained unchanged. Chartran had attempted—as with all his subjects—to depict “the private man” rather than the public politician. But Roosevelt, who prided himself on being a tough, virile specimen of a man, thought the painting made him look like “a mewling cat.”
In our current age where social media is plastered with personal photography, it’s easy to relate to the distress Roosevelt must have felt when the portrait he so hated proceeded to go on display at an exhibition in France following its completion. Despite Roosevelt’s opinion, the painting was a critical success.
One newspaper review predicted, “M. Chartran’s portraits of Mr. and Miss Roosevelt will make a sensation. They are marked by all the grace and animation which the artist succeeds in getting into his portraits…The pleasure one feels in looking at these canvases is entirely foreign to painting.”
But positive reviews couldn’t sway the first family. The Roosevelts hated the painting. When it returned from France to the White House, the portrait was unceremoniously stashed in “the upper corridor, in the darkest spot on the wall, and by the family it has always been called the Mewing Cat,” according to Roosevelt’s aide Archibald Butt.
But even exile to the upper corridor wasn’t enough to soothe the troubled pride of the president. Six years after the painting was finished, Roosevelt decided it had to be destroyed. The Mewing Cat was unceremoniously removed from the wall and burned in what was perhaps the most decisive art critique of them all.
Roosevelt had better luck with his next attempt at immortalizing his presidency on canvas. Soon after the disappointing Chartran debacle, the president contacted another well known portraitist, John Singer Sargent, of whom Roosevelt had once written, "He is of course the one artist who should paint the portrait of an American President.”
Sargent’s portrait of Roosevelt is the one that we now know today—Teddy standing in a confident, manly pose with one hand on his hip, the other planted atop a newel.
While Roosevelt was more than pleased with the result, achieving it was no picnic (the two allegedly fought over location and pose until the final image was achieved).
Chartran’s feelings on the affair remain unknown. But despite the president’s final judgement, it may not be fair to blame the French artist for his failed attempt at capturing Roosevelt.
William Bayard Hale, a political journalist who covered the president, suggested that Roosevelt just maybe was too dynamic of a man to be captured in paint at all.
“Of all men the President lends himself least to portraiture by the brush,” Hale wrote. “Painting is a still art. It cannot represent action. The President in repose is a dynamo at rest—and looks the part. But it is hardly worth while to paint a dynamo.”