Inauguration Casts President Portraits In New Light

Portrait of George Washington i i

George Washington, c. 1821. Gilbert Stuart/National Gallery of Art hide caption

itoggle caption Gilbert Stuart/National Gallery of Art
Portrait of George Washington

George Washington, c. 1821.

Gilbert Stuart/National Gallery of Art
Portrait of John Adams i i

John Adams, c. 1821. Gilbert Stuart/National Gallery of Art hide caption

itoggle caption Gilbert Stuart/National Gallery of Art
Portrait of John Adams

John Adams, c. 1821.

Gilbert Stuart/National Gallery of Art
Portrait of Thomas Jefferson i i

Thomas Jefferson, c. 1821. Gilbert Stuart/National Gallery of Art hide caption

itoggle caption Gilbert Stuart/National Gallery of Art
Portrait of Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson, c. 1821.

Gilbert Stuart/National Gallery of Art
Portrait of James Madison i i

James Madison, c. 1821. Gilbert Stuart/National Gallery of Art hide caption

itoggle caption Gilbert Stuart/National Gallery of Art
Portrait of James Madison

James Madison, c. 1821.

Gilbert Stuart/National Gallery of Art
Portrait of James Monroe i i

James Monroe, c. 1821. Gilbert Stuart/National Gallery of Art hide caption

itoggle caption Gilbert Stuart/National Gallery of Art
Portrait of James Monroe

James Monroe, c. 1821.

Gilbert Stuart/National Gallery of Art

Museums on the Mall in Washington, D.C., are bracing for hundreds of thousands of visitors the weekend before Inauguration Day. Curators at the National Gallery of Art hope some of them may find their way to Room 65; there hang five iconic presidential portraits, all painted in the early 1800s by artist Gilbert Stuart.

James Monroe, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and of course George Washington gaze gravely from the room's dove-colored walls.

"Sometimes it's hard to look at an image that's so familiar because you just go, 'It's Washington, I know. I've seen it hundreds of times,'" says Frank Kelly, the National Gallery's senior curator of American and British paintings.

After all, Stuart was also responsible for the image of George Washington that graces the $1 bill. But Frank says there's special pleasure to be taken in this particular suite of paintings by Federal America's preeminent portraitist.

The Gibbs-Coolidge paintings, as they're known, are the only surviving complete set of portraits depicting the first five presidents of the United States. Stuart painted them from life. To look at the paintings is to know each president was watching Stuart as he moved his brush.

The portraits don't look especially presidential — no swords, no flags, no seals.

"In a sense, they're very democratic," says Kelly. "There's nothing of the traditional trappings of what was called the grand manner of portraiture that says 'this was an important person.'"

What's left is a sense of presence and personality. Visitor Brad Alldredge thinks the portraits make the first presidents look old. The Delta pilot lives in Utah and visited the National Gallery during a layover in D.C.

"They all look as if they've had hard experiences," he says.

War and nation-building may take a visible toll, but visitor Patricia Andrews sees vitality in Thomas Jefferson. The 80-year-old former Hawaii resident added that she'd like to see President-elect Barack Obama painted on the beach, in his Hawaiian bathing trunks.

Kelly says he just hopes visitors who chance upon the portraits might take a moment for reflection.

"As we get ready for the inauguration," he says, "I look at these men and think, they were really carving out of raw material something remarkable."

And perhaps visitors leaving the National Gallery's Room 65 will survey the U.S. Capitol, the monuments and the White House with new eyes.

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