On the Painters, Part 1

In the spirit of Giorgio Vasari’s great series of biographies, Le Vite (itself a tribute to Plutarch’s classic, Lives), we offer features to each of the portrait painters, sculptors, engravers, and cartoonists of the Coolidges (the President, First Lady, the Colonel [Cal’s father], and the Coolidge boys – John and Calvin Jr.) in the posts that follow. The list is surprisingly rich with a cornucopia of personalities, cultural interconnections, and delightful stories along the way. There are mysteries too. Perhaps you, wonderful reader, can help in shedding more light on the lives and work of those recognized here. The list of those who sought to give honor where honor was due through their unique skills, be it with canvas and brush, chisel and stone, or paper and ink, still live to continue sharing with each of us what they saw with all the goodness and joy it gave them.

These features will be grouped by the specialty of each artist’s medium: the painters, the sculptors, the engravers, and the illustrators. Each catches something in their subjects others miss. While the written word has conquered many an otherwise impossible challenge and will continue proving its might on a thousand battlefields, artists often catch what writers overlook, discovering elusive, intangible qualities that bring them closer to understanding the person than a million words ever could. There is an enigmatic veneer of varying degrees in each of the Coolidges and while more than one writer has found success in peering beyond that veil, artists as a whole have proven much more successful in peeling back the layers and in sharing their artistic love and admiration for Cal and his family with us all.

Philip de Laszlo

Hungarian-born Philip de Laszlo (self-portrait at 4/8), married into the Guinness family (Laszlo’s painting of his wife, Lucy, below at 6/8), became a British subject and completed these twin portraits of President and First Lady Coolidge on his third visit to the United States, 1925-1926. If an artist was commissioned to complete the President’s portrait, Coolidge usually had Grace’s portrait done as well. Laszlo was a prolific artist, with some 4,000 works completed over the course of more than 40 years, a virtual who’s who of the era. It was Coolidge friend and the president of New York Life, Darwin P. Kingsley (shown at 5/8 with Coolidge in 1929), who commissioned Laszlo’s depiction of the First Lady. Coolidge made sure both Secretary of State Frank B. Kellogg and Mrs. Kellogg also made Laszlo’s list of illustrious subjects.

Howard Chandler Christy

Christy is best known for his work as an illustrator in what was then the blossoming field of magazine cover and advertisement art. Coming to fame as he worked alongside Teddy Roosevelt’s “Rough Riders” in combat during the Spanish-American War, Christy established himself as both a wartime illustrator (his recruiting posters, including the “Christy Girl” during the Great War, were cultural icons) and definer of female beauty. He turned to portraiture in the 1920s and painted the Coolidges first in 1923 (with the First Lady in off-white, 1/7, both President and First Lady can be seen at Forbes Library in Northampton, Massachusetts) then again – even more famously – in a second life-size portrait with red gown alongside the Coolidges’ beloved white collie, Rob Roy, completed in 1924 at the White House (preliminary watercolor in 3/7 and then in oil on canvas, 4/7). Of course, most of us have probably heard Cal’s suggestion that Grace be painted in her more characteristic white while, if there has to be red anywhere, they just paint the dog. Christy’s strength was always in depicting ladies and in trying to portray President Coolidge, he struggles and even falls short (2/7).

Yet, Christy demonstrates a growing skill and captures famous men in later work, like Will Rogers in 1935 (7/7). Christy (self-portrait in 5/7) went on, of course, to paint historical and allegorical murals in the 30s and 40s, the best known being his “Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States” (6/7) completed in 1940 and now displayed at the Capitol. He continued to work to the last and died quietly in his studio, surrounded by some of his final projects, at the age of 80 (in 1952).

Frank O. Salisbury

Frank O. Salisbury was the son of a plumber/glazier from Great Britain. Frank apprenticed to his brother’s stained-glass workshop and manifested an early aptitude for detailed painting on the various glass projects they produced. He established himself as a painter of historical, allegorical, and portraiture work, the last for which he was best known. It was through American Antiquarian Society member Clarence Bowen that Salisbury secured commission to complete a portrait of President Coolidge to be done while the Chief Executive and First Lady stayed on Sapelo Island, off the coast of Georgia, as guests of Howard and Matilda Coffin in December of 1928.

Salisbury arrived in Washington and was welcomed along with the Presidential entourage as they headed south via rail. With Salisbury highly regarded for his accuracy and speed with the brush, the President and First Lady quite accustomed to sitting for artists, and finally the setting’s natural beauty and architectural majesty, it did not take long to complete the customary twin portraits. Salisbury was ready for the First Lady after three, short days. The President even ventured into the home’s library from time to time as Salisbury brought Mrs. Coolidge to grace another canvas. His remark, “It is like–it is actually like you, dear!” met with quite the laugh between Grace and the artist.

When done, the results pleased them both so much…portraits of their hosts, Mr. & Mrs. Coffin, were added to the order. Salisbury’s President Calvin Coolidge was intended for the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, where it arrived and Coolidge inducted as an honorary member in 1929.

While it was conventional to paint high-ranking leaders in dark apparel, Salisbury departs from this norm when it was found a robe then a black suit failed to achieve the desired look. Those left him looking like a preacher. When Salisbury complimented the President on their final choice – a light suit – Coolidge dryly remarked, “This is a very distinguished suit.”

Salisbury’s work done, he would be commissioned again by another member of the American Antiquarian Society, Clarence Brigham (with encouragement from fellow member Bowen) to honor the now-late Calvin Coolidge, who had passed the year before, having also served as president of the AAS after his years in the White House.

This time, however (with the portrait meant for the American Antiquarian Society), it took additional effort: first to rally the funds in the midst of deepening economic depression…but also to alter, even correct, some of the imprecision of the 1928 portrait. Sending several photos of the late President to Salisbury, Brigham – in consultation with Mrs. Coolidge – presented a list of details to be refined in the new work, especially when it came to the President’s mouth, a regular obstacle for Coolidge artists. After additional photos capturing a less full chin (than appeared in the 1928 portrait) and just the right expression of Cal’s mouth, Salisbury got it right and a second distinguished portrait was completed in 1934. This painting, housed at Worcester with the American Antiquarian Society, would have the further distinction of returning Coolidge to the White House for some eight years, to preside over the Cabinet Room of the Reagan administration.

Here they are: the portraits of President & Mrs. Coolidge, the artist at work, Mr. & Mrs. Coffin, Mr. Bowen (also by Salisbury), Mr. Brigham (by Irving Resnikoff, 1950), and finally where the hosts of Sapelo Island (and benefactors of the Golden Isles region) now rest, at Christ Church Episcopal Cemetery on Saint Simons Island, Georgia.

Hermann Hanatschek

Moravian-born Austrian Hermann Hanatschek received his artistic training in Vienna and Munich while his older contemporary (by only one year) Coolidge studied at Amherst and then worked his way up through local and state elected office in Massachusetts. Establishing a studio in New York in 1903, Hanatschek found his popularity as a skilled portrait painter growing but he would return to Vienna and enlist in the Austrian army in 1911.

During the Great War, he invested his talents in painting the portraits of Austria’s leading officers of the state and military. He even depicted the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand shortly before the heir’s assassination in 1914.

Returning to the United States and his New York studio through the 1920s, Hanatschek completed two portraits in oil on canvas of President Coolidge, the first appears to be an initial study, dated 1924, and the second completed in 1927, commissioned by Cal’s Amherst Class of 1895. Mr. Hanatschek, for all his talents and his large body of work, is one of the more elusive and invisible artists of the era. His work, not his image, speaks for him.

Arthur Ignatius Keller

Arthur Ignatius Keller had an incredible talent for capturing energy and action in his work. It was one of his signature qualities that his depictions often conveyed scenes flush with activity and alive with fascinating characters crowded around the picture.

His father, an engraver, supported his training abroad and would have seen young Arthur continue to learn impressionism in Paris but the son wanted to master classical realism over the impressionism that was sweeping art in the closing years of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Arthur came home and continued to hone his craft, a favorite as a book and magazine illustrator. Neighbors, friends, and family (including his wife and children) all found places in his drawings and paintings.

He was so impressed by the dramatic nature of the Homestead Inauguration that he bent his talents to depicting the scene in 1924, visualizing what no photographer or illustrator had up to that point…or since. Coming out to the Homestead in 1924 to accurately paint the room, the President even posed for him, albeit while smoking one of his favorite black cigars.

While Coolidge would say the likenesses left much to be desired, the energy emerging out of the scene comes as much from the inherent drama of that night as from Keller’s unmistakable hand.

Unfortunately, Keller would succumb to pneumonia and pass away in December 1924. It is his work, however, that remains the defining depiction of the captivating developments that ushered in America’s thirtieth President, ninety-five years ago, August 3, 1923.

Edmund C. Tarbell

When it comes to preeminent New England painters, it is impossible not to encounter Edmund Charles Tarbell (1862-1938). Born in West Groton, raised on the outskirts of Boston, trained in Europe (including a study of the art in the Louvre), Tarbell would return to his native country and help shatter the belief that American artists would always live in the shadow of European methods, style, and talent.

Tarbell would take a leading role in the Society of American Artists, display his work at the National Academy of Design, and teach at the Boston Museum School for more than twenty years. During the 1920s he focused largely upon portraiture. He would not only inspire America’s artists with confidence in their own homegrown talent but capture many of the era’s personalities in paint. It was an indication that you were now someone of distinction if the great Tarbell painted you.

Yet, for all of Mr. Tarbell’s supreme talents, he found President Coolidge to be among the most difficult subjects he ever painted. Congenial and friendly, it was not Cal’s personality but his appearance which posed the challenge. The Boston Globe, reporting on Tarbell’s death in 1938, explained: “He said Coolidge while posing, looked like a boy one moment and the next moment his expression would change into that of a grave and stern man. Most of the time the President was absolutely expressionless. But for all that he was genial.”

Coolidge would later comment to another portrait painter that one of his past portraits necessitated many long hours standing – a grueling experience the then former President refused to repeat. It was a clear reference to his posing for Tarbell. Cal wanted the next artist to understand clearly: the portrait could not take too long and he would most certainly not be standing.

Coolidge would likewise stretch more than one artist’s abilities in the effort to capture the man.

Commissioned first by the state legislature of Massachusetts in 1925, Tarbell would come to White Court at Swampscott, where the President stayed that summer, producing a full-length, life-size depiction that would finally see completion at Tarbell’s New Hampshire studio. It would be unveiled the following year to great acclaim. Intended for the Commonwealth’s Senate Chamber (to honor Coolidge’s remarkable leadership as president of that body, 1914-1915) – where is was displayed for many years – the massive 100 x 47 inch canvas is now located in the Senate’s Reading Room.

Impressed by the work, Tarbell would be commissioned by Boston’s illustrious Algonquin Club to create a copy of the portrait for display near the entrance of the Club. Funded by the subscription of members in 1927, this much smaller version of the painting (88 x 33 inches) can currently be seen in the foyer on the second floor.

Either version captures something immediately striking about our thirtieth president. It becomes a quest to identify what that is. In both, his hands are quietly folded before him, displaying his black onyx wedding ring and the same impish whimsy that Tarbell struggled to capture as it mingled with the sober thoughtfulness of the sitter. The dark palette chosen by Tarbell contrasts with the subtle play of light at the center. The soft emergence of Coolidge from that darkness forms a powerful statement.

It is a good visualization not only of the subject’s character but also conveys how power in Cal’s hands came not with clanging cymbal or loud trumpet but with subtle, unwavering force, like the pressures behind a wall of water against fissures in a dam. It captures in art form the kind of leader Coolidge was, whether slicing wasteful expenditures, killing harmful legislation, dismissing negligent policemen, streamlining departments, or simply (as he put it) “minding his own business,” and Cal lives through Tarbell’s portraits.

Thanks go to the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Reference Department of the Massachusetts State House for their kind assistance with details regarding the Tarbell portrait in the Senate Reading Room.

Josef de Sigall

Josef Sigall, born to prosperous Jewish parents in what was then Poland (his native Brody now lies in the Ukraine), had the best training in art anyone in the Austrian Empire could enjoy. Young Josef studied in Vienna – the cultural and political heart of the Empire – earning the highest recognition at the Royal Academy. He then continued his studies at Munich just as the Great War began. He would earn knighthood in the Order of Franz Joseph, the Iron Cross, the Order of Signum Laudis, and the Cross of Gold. At 21, he was chosen above his peers to paint the kaiser, a credit to his incredible talents.

It seems he then spent time in Argentina (where Sigall remained a well-known surname for many years) but it was not until 1925 that Josef, independently wealthy, came to the United States. He is here pictured with his first wife, Bertha. He would briefly return to Argentina but be back in California before the end of 1926.

Free to travel and pursue his hobby – a highly acclaimed talent in portraiture – he was committed to realism just as that style was giving way to the more fashionable and deliberately less precise impressionist movement. Josef would paint Hollywood celebrities (including his friend and fellow Pole, silent film star Pola Negri), kings (including later, King George VI), politicians and diplomats (including William McAdoo and his entire family and later the wives of Hoover’s Cabinet) then turning to landscapes in his last years.

Sigall was invited to the White House to paint the First Lady, Mrs. Grace Coolidge, in late 1926, an honor he clearly enjoyed as the results demonstrate. Almost as an afterthought, however, he was also asked to paint the President, which he also did. It would begin a tradition of Sigall presidential portraits, including Coolidge’s successors, Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Unfortunately, his studio in Saratoga in Santa Clara, California would catch fire and burn the models, paintings, and other work he was developing by 1934. A collection of his many projects remains mysteriously lost to this day. He would turn to painting the Mojave Desert, an extended project in which he was involved when he died in 1953.

Here is some of his work.

It seems not entirely impossible that the fun-loving Mr. Sigall colluded with the mischievous President Coolidge to preserve a portrait that is almost prankish in its result and timing. A visible frown on Cal’s face stares back at us through the years. Did he catch Cal at a bad time or was it, in fact, a joke set up between these two? Surely, for all of Josef Sigall’s talents, he would have presented a real Mr. Coolidge. Was this another one of Mr. Coolidge’s many practical jokes with a punchline only he, the artist and those who understood them would get? Possibly so. It would be in character.

Thanks go to Leslie Cade, Director of Museum Archives at the Cleveland Museum of Art, for her exceptional help in researching Mr. Sigall and his work.

Frank C. Ashford

Though Frank Clifford Ashford was a native of Iowa (born there in 1878), he relocated with his family to Stratford in northeastern South Dakota when still a youngster. Leaving home at 17, he began a career as an artist, studying briefly in Chicago and, before long, in New York under impressionist William M. Chase. Frank would then travel to Europe, painting as he went.

He would return to the United States sometime before the outbreak of the First World War. Crossing the north from Minnesota to Oregon and back, Frank specialized in portraits and landscapes. Ashford came to favor Aberdeen, South Dakota (like Stratford, also in Brown County, in fact the county seat). In years to come, he would achieve a kind of regional celebrity in not small measure because it was he who was able to secure commission of not one but five paintings of then-President Coolidge, the First Lady and South Dakota’s leading Senator, Peter Norbeck.

When the Coolidges came to South Dakota in the summer of 1927, Ashford (despite being on the other side of the state) was conveniently placed to earn the distinct honor. In tribute to his patron, Ashford depicted Senator Norbeck and attempted two sets of portraits for the President and Mrs. Coolidge, a formal pair and an informal one.

The formal portraits of the Coolidges and the one of Senator Norbeck still reside in the lobby of the Game Lodge at Custer, where the Coolidges called home for a few months 91 years ago. The informal portraits of the Coolidges are usually found at Forbes Library in the Coolidge Room at Northampton. However, the Calvin Coolidge State Historic Site in Plymouth Notch, Vermont, has an excellent exhibit of some of the artifacts from that much acclaimed visit to South Dakota, including the portrait of President Coolidge in his headdressed splendor. Also included in that display is the magnificent headdress itself. The exhibit runs through December. It is worth the visit for all who can make it up that way.

Like contemporary Howard Chandler Christy, Mr. Ashford seems to have specialized (in our humble view) in painting only one of the pair with lasting success. Christy tended to capture his female subjects more accurately than his male ones. The reverse seems to be true of Mr. Ashford, at least in the Coolidge’s case. Mr. Ashford seems to miss the mark when it comes to Grace Coolidge, leaving something absent/missing in his rendition of her appearance. It just isn’t quite her. This doesn’t seem to be a persistent shortcoming as Mr. Ashford painted other ladies of the time with great success.

He comes closer to the mark in the informal portraits but still appears to strike wide of the target. Is it the weight he adds to his subject’s faces? Is it something else?

Many thanks go to the South Dakota Department of Game. Fish, and Parks for their generous assistance in the research of Ashford’s work.

Don’t let us speak for you, what do you think of the Ashford four?

DeWitt Lockman

Here is Lockman, painted and painter. Enjoy, dear readers!

DeWitt Lockman was truly a child prodigy. He created his first work at the age of 4 and by 10 was an exhibitor at the National Academy. Self-taught with some training under James Beard (himself self-taught and also a native New Yorker), he picked up Beard’s specialization in depicting pets and young children. It became a signature of Lockman’s work that he would preserve not only the human subject but also the canine member of the family.

When the New York Historical Society commissioned a portrait for its distinguished member, the former President Calvin Coolidge, there was really only one artist best suited for the challenge of painting the nearly impossible to capture-on-canvas-Cal: DeWitt Lockman.

Invited to the Coolidges new home at the Beeches, Lockman went to work and very quickly produced not only the man’s persona in paint but also their beloved white collie, Beauty, the ladylike successor of Prudence Prim and Rob Roy. Lockman even began a portrayal study of their playful Chow, Tim, the results to be shared with the Coolidges at a later time.

He rapidly won the hearts of the Coolidges and remained a welcome guest whenever occasion should bring the artist back to Northampton.

Lockman was not only an artist but a keen preservationist for art and the stories of those who created it. He had interviewed many of the leading lights in art of the 1920s (including two who would share his honor as a portrait painter of Coolidge). It was Lockman who bestowed a rich appreciation for both the craft of oil and brush but also its long and illustrious history, most especially in America.

UPDATE: Tim’s delightful portrait resides with the Division for Historic Preservation of the State of Vermont and is currently on display, as of the summer of 2019, with several other items, including sculptures of Tim, in the Coolidge Menagerie exhibit at Plymouth Notch. We will be featuring the artists in honor of Tim at a future point in this series.

Charles S. Hopkinson

Here is a short walk through some of Hopkinson’s finest work.

Charles Sydney Hopkinson had quite an interesting life. Charles Sydney was born in Boston in 1869 and named with all his father’s hopes: choosing the hero of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, Sydney Carton, for his son’s namesake. Charles’ father John, never quite achieving all he wanted to accomplish in life, would ensure his son had far better circumstances ahead of him.

A solitary boy, Charles was much more at home drawing cows in the nearby fields than playing sports with the other boys.

Despite his family’s literary and academic achievements (including a lifelong and respected closeness to his mother’s brother, Charles W. Eliot, the President of Harvard University), young Hopkinson did not quite fit in with the proud Boston Brahmin set. He would perfect his abilities as an artist deliberately outside the Boston School circle, training in New York, Paris, a recurring escape to Roscoff in Brittany, and Spain before returning to his home turf. This gave Charles a unique blend of techniques upon which he would form his own distinctive style. But, it would forestall recognition of his talents among the Bostonian elite, even after marrying into it, wedding Elinor Curtis in 1903.

For the rest of his life, Charles’ favorite subjects would be his own family, especially his five accomplished daughters. Capturing them in paint as they grew, Charles was a beloved father and through his depictions of the family gained the notoriety that set the stage for national acclaim.

Dismissed as too much of a rebel by the Boston School, its leaders (William Paxton and Edmund Tarbell, themselves future painters of Calvin Coolidge) found it easiest to ignore him completely – at least initially. It would be Charles W. Eliot, the President of Harvard, who would break with that undeserved response and commission his talented nephew for what proved to be the first of many Harvard University portraits in 1909. Boston’s finest had finally to admit Hopkinson’s exceptional skill. He would confirm it in 1913’s Armory Show and subsequent exhibitions.

On one occasion in 1916, while friend and already established artist John Singer Sargent was visiting as a guest, Hopkinson’s daughters, play-dancing on the lawn at their home, inspired one of Charles’ best known scenes. He would agonize over “Three Dancing Girls” for several years, completing it in 1923. He would paint “The Family Group” in 1924, depicting his wife, himself, and their five daughters one final time before school and life would separate them into distinct households.

Before that, however, would come the national breakthrough Hopkinson had long awaited. He was commissioned to be one of only eight American artists who would travel to Europe to paint the members of the Versailles Peace Conference. Hopkinson would join Edmund Tarbell (who would paint President Wilson, Herbert Hoover, and Marshal Foch), Joseph De Camp, Cecilia Beaux (Premier Clemenceau), John Johansen (Marshal Joffre and Premier Orlando), Jean MacCane (Johansen’s wife would paint Australian and Greek members of the Conference), Douglas Volk (General John J. Pershing and Prime Minister David Lloyd George), and Irving Wiles (Admiral Sims). Some 24 portraits, commissioned by the National Art Committee and chaired by delegate Henry White, would be exhibited in galleries around the United States in 1921. While Hopkinson would not secure the most illustrious names for the canvas, it would be his three: Japanese Prince Saionji, Premier Bratianu of Romania, and Premier Nicola Pasic of Serbia that would earn some of the highest praise. It was this trio of portrayals that propelled Hopkinson to national standing as the equal of Sargent among portrait painters.

This work would launch Charles on a series over the next decade he would wryly call “big game shooting,” the commission to paint preeminent American leaders, beginning with Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover. Unfortunately, it seems, this portrait is now lost and any information of its whereabouts would be most helpful. Charles would also be commissioned with a portraits of John D. Rockefeller Jr, the great philanthropist (1927), Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes (1930), and former President Calvin Coolidge (1932).

It is to the latter that we now turn. The time had come to commission Coolidge’s “official portrait” to join the White House’s collection of Chief Executives on canvas. Senator Simeon Fess chaired the committee to oversee the project and began working out legislation that would appropriate $5,000 for the whole work. For the committee, the name Charles Hopkinson stood out above the others. Fess wrote to Hopkinson and obtained his permission then included Coolidge in the arrangements. In the meantime, the Senate, reluctance to spend quite so much for a portrait, reduced the price tag by half, withholding that detail from Coolidge.

It was now Coolidge’s turn to lay out his terms, writing the artist in January 1932:

“Dear Sir…Before you begin the picture I want to have it very clearly understood that it must be satisfactory to me. I do not care how many other people have to be satisfied as that would only be a negative matter, but I do not want any portrait for this particular purpose that for any reason I do not feel is adequate. I think there is very little danger of anything of the kind but I am very particular to have it understood…You recall that you are to stay at our house…May I suggest that I am a difficult subject and ask you to consider first making a little study of my head. Artists tell me that I look easy to paint but they find it difficult to get me on canvas. The last one painted me three times to get what he wanted. I wish you would take the utmost care about the canvas and paint for this particular picture.

                                                             With the compliments of the Season, I am

                                                             Very truly yours,

                                                                                                         Calvin Coolidge”

Any other artist might have been hopelessly intimidated by such a letter but not Charles Sydney Hopkinson. He arrived in Northampton on the appointed day, received by Cal himself at the door who offered to fix him some dinner and proved not only a good host but, in Charles’ own words, “a good sitter.” He found there was nothing of vanity in Coolidge, who despite having what the artist noted was a sour expression on his face retained in the painting, told Hopkinson: “Hed fourteen po’trets painted, and that’s the best maouth anybody ever done of me.” Charles would later say, “He was so perfectly Yankee – of the same stock as my own – that I couldn’t help liking him, and so the painting went well.” Cal must have been satisfied with the result that Hopkinson’s work ended up promptly appearing in the White House until FDR took both it and Hoover’s portrait down to remain in storage until Ronald Reagan would – to the surprise of many – have it placed in the Cabinet Room in 1981. That brave and principled act would rekindle the admiration for #30 that keeps growing after being relegated to the wilderness for so long.

Hopkinson would continue to paint, care for his now frail wife until her death in 1947, develop a new technique for watercolors after moving to New Zealand, return to the United States permanently in 1954 and pass on his love of sailing and boats to a grandson — all up to his 89th year. He retained a lifelong disdain for cartoons and comics, believing them a debasement of genuine art. As such, he would cut out the comic section in newspapers to avoid exposing his children and grandchildren to its cheapening effects on how people are perceived and toward life itself. He was no killjoy either, infusing a wholesome good humor and joy through other means. He retained a light heart to the end. He would pass away at age 93 on October 17, 1963. It is fitting, nonetheless, that he has the honor of being the one – tenacious and independent-minded Yankee that he was – to paint the portrait that would be Coolidge in the White House joining Christy’s portrait of Mrs. Coolidge waiting for him there since 1924. It would be Cal’s last portrait from life (passing away almost exactly a year after Hopkinson’s visit) and then it would be his turn to wait for his lovely Grace.

For further reading on Hopkinson’s life, one can do no better than the excellent unpublished biography “The Artist and His Wife: The Lives of Charles Sydney Hopkinson and his Wife Elinor Curtis Hopkinson” by one of their grandsons, Arthur A. Schurcliff from 2014 and “Charles S. Hopkinson: The Innocent Eye” compiled by the fine folks at Vose Galleries in 2013.

Robert W. Grafton

Few could equal Robert Wadsworth Grafton in combining both speed and accuracy as a portrait painter. As such, Grafton ranks as one of the most prolific artists to paint President Coolidge.

Trained in both the Chicago Academy of Design and the Art Institute of Chicago, Grafton, like many American artists, also studied at the Academie Julian in Paris. His collaboration with friend and fellow painter Louis O. Griffin between 1914-1918 to capture New Orleans in murals across the city established his talent in that medium leading to various commissions that can now be seen throughout the Midwest in Kansas, Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana. He would also be the first to offer art classes in the French Quarter.

It was his talents as a portrait painter, however, that most distinguish him, painting two U.S. Presidents (Coolidge and Hoover), three Indiana governors, and some 160 portraits for the Saddle & Sirloin Club in Chicago honoring those who contributed in different ways to the cattle industry. It was for the Club’s collection that Chicago Stockyard President Arthur G. Leonard turned to the logical choice for who would paint Cal: Chicago’s own, Mr. Grafton.

Usually able to conquer his subjects quickly, completing commissions at an astonishing rate, Grafton hit a wall when it came to Calvin Coolidge. Grafton struggled to translate his elusive sitter through multiple sessions, all without success. Becoming increasingly frustrated that he might fail to capture the quiet, unreadable Coolidge through paint…he began to despair of ever achieving his goal. Just days before Coolidge was to leave office, Grafton faced one last chance before admitting defeat for good. Coolidge had patiently given the artist an extraordinary measure of time but Grafton’s high expectations on himself, combined with Cal’s reticence, left the him unsettled, frazzled and flustered as he came to the White House for his last try.

Grafton, staying at the Willard Hotel, confided his difficulties to Secret Service man Colonel Starling, who narrates what happened next: “The sittings were being held in the northwest room on the second floor. It was a bright, clear, beautiful day when Grafton made his final effort. The President came in and went to the little dais on which his chair was set. He looked out the window at the sunshine and said to Grafton: ‘Good morning. It might rain.’ Grafton was so shaken that he upset a can of turpentine. As he watched it spread over the beautiful rug covering the floor, despair completely engulfed him. ‘Oh, Mr. President, I am so sorry!’ he said. ‘Please have the rug sent to the cleaners and I will gladly pay the bill.’ ‘Now, don’t you worry about the old rug,’ he said. ‘I’m going to move out of here in a few days.’ Grafton stared, then relaxed and smiled. Without a word he seized his brushes and began to paint. The spell was broken, the problem was solved. Grafton finished his work in a short time and did a grand job. He caught the little fellow [as the 6 foot Starling called Coolidge] exactly–half owl, half elf” (Starling of the White House 271).

Sadly, the extensive collection of the Saddle & Sirloin burned in a devastating fire in 1934, including Grafton’s portrait of President Coolidge. But, as often happens with disaster, there are redemptive opportunities…Grafton was commissioned to replicate as many of the portraits as he could, including a copy of the portrait of Cal that now hangs with the collection at the Kentucky Exposition Center in Louisville. He repainted some 160 portraits, almost single-handedly restoring much of the Club’s collection before his death in 1936. Thanks go to Cassi Haggard, Information Officer at the Exposition Center, for her generous help in obtaining details on the portrait and for snapping pictures of the portrait.

Ercole Cartotto

Ercole Cartotto was an incredible gentleman. Born in the mountains of northern Italy in the Valle Mosso region, he ventured to America in 1905 at the age of 16. His brother, Abel, had already made the journey but would die in 1912 at the age of 35, leaving a wife and daughter, Ercole’s niece Stella in Northampton, Massachusetts. Ercole would help care for little Stella, become a naturalized American citizen and serve in the U.S. Army during the Great War. Ercole would become a family man himself, marrying Elena Tortorella in 1922, having two daughters (Beatrice & Joan) in the years that followed. Cartotto would receive his training from the renowned Boston School of Tarbell and Paxton (themselves painters of Coolidge).

Here, interestingly, an early interconnection with the Coolidges appears. Ercole perfected his English by sitting in on Hampton County court proceedings. It is likely here that Mr. Cartotto first glimpsed a young lawyer (the future President) he would later paint. Did Ercole formally meet the rising Mr. Coolidge in Northampton before the White House years? It seems very possible that Mayor Coolidge would have known of the Northampton Cartottos.

Ercole would prove an exceptional artist. Encountering his work today, the observer is immediately struck with his stunning precision and gripping range of color. One almost doubts they are even paintings as opposed to photographs. They are testaments to his superb skill and great love for the craft itself. His sketches and portraits can be seen all over the United States. He holds the unchallenged record for the most portraits of Calvin Coolidge done by a single artist, with 4 different finished works and multiple sketches. He began a portrait with sketches in pencil, drawn from life.

Coolidge’s notorious silence could be disconcerting to those uncomfortable with and unsure of how to handle the absence of conversational noise in public settings. This never bothered Cal. Coolidge did not have many close friends but neither did he lack the ability to draw out the people he wanted to know. Mr. Cartotto would be one of those. Coolidge could be very talkative, even monopolizing a conversation when he chose to do so. At first, Ercole was unsure how to process the litany of questions flying in at him. He began to feel like he was under an investigation. As time went on, however, Cal’s good intentions became clear. It was the President’s way of measuring the man as quickly as possible. They came away from multiple sessions with an understanding of each other and a mutual regard, even a friendship. It is not coincidental that Coolidge would sit for his friend as many times as he did.

Classmate George Pratt commissioned one for Amherst. Another was commissioned by Coolidge’s Phi Gamma Delta fraternity. Yet another was done for the Vermont State House in Montpelier. Copies abound. Perhaps the most iconic portrait of Cal (and the most frequently copied, including a 1957 version by Joseph Burgess) was created by the artist encouraging his subject to form the word “tiger” as he painted to adequately capture the President’s fierce determination toward government economy out of a steely commitment to public duty. It would later be the source of jokes (Coolidge, looking to some, like he was about to literally bite a political opponent) but it remains a demonstration of Cartotto’s tribute to his friend.

Ercole would say this of Coolidge in 1935, “I was privileged to know him gradually as the humane, friendly, deliberate, and balanced person that he was–solid as the granite of his state, and yet as gentle a human being, free from all frills and veneer, as one could meet.”

Wayman E. Adams

Wayman Eldridge Adams began life in 1883 on the family farm in Indiana. His first drawings were the cattle and horses his father, Nelson, raised. The father, seeing artistic potential in his son, encouraged him to pursue it whole-heartedly. Wayman’s work earned first place at the Indiana State Fair at the age of 12. By 16, he had earned his first commission, depicting a heifer named Gypsy Girl III, for which he was paid five dollars.

He took up formal training at the Herron Art Institute in Indianapolis but was soon heading to New York City to learn more at the Grand Central Art School, traveling with Robert Henri to Spain and William M. Chase to Italy. It was in Italy, that he met his future wife, fellow art student and a native Texan, Margaret Burroughs.

Their beloved only son, Wayman Jr. (nicknamed ‘Snig’), would naturally appear in his father’s art.

Wayman not only became a premier portrait painter (securing commissions of Presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover not to mention a vivid cast of fellow artists, musicians, governors, clergymen, businessmen and philanthropists, as well as farmers, entertainers, celebrities and a plethora of every-day, regular folks) but a teacher as well. He had a life-long enthusiasm for encouraging talent in others, helping to further the careers of Johann Berthelsen and Miltby Sykes among untold others. Together he and his wife, Margaret, founded the Old Mill Art Colony to teach their craft in the Adirondacks. His exceptional mastery of the alla-prima technique learned from Henri and Chase christened him “Lightning” Adams for his speed as a painter. He would often fully complete a entire portrait in one sitting, usually involving just 2-3 hours.

His work can be found from Texas, where he settled (in Austin), to Indiana to New York, Chicago to Philadelphia and beyond. It is difficult not to encounter him just about anywhere. His portrait of former President Coolidge, completed in 1931, commissioned for the Union League Club in New York (where it would join an elite set of Presidential portraits displayed there) would honor the man from Vermont, whose roots close to the land were not unlike Adams’ own.

Another of Wayman Adams’ superb portraits is this one of Clara Driscoll in 1920. Mrs. Driscoll’s life and legacy deserve a book of their own but the blessings of those dedicated to historic preservation through the years – most especially during the 1920s – would be infinitely poorer without her. In fact, there would be no Alamo still standing were it not for this great lady of Texas.

Wayman would continue working up to his death in 1959. His wife would follow six years later. An adopted son of Texas, Wayman would establish his base of operations at Austin but travel extensively through the years, in pursuit of a limitless range of subjects for study. He preferred oils but experimented in watercolors as well. His work attracted a great deal of attention in the 90s when a large auction in Texas disbursed many of his paintings. It deserves continued interest still.

Eben F. Comins

Born in Boston in 1875, trained at both the Boston School under Tarbell and the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, Eben Farrington Comins balanced a diverse range of work with instruction from Atlantic to Pacific over a career spanning some fifty years. While many specialized in portraiture, Comins was, of sorts, a Renaissance man, gifted in multiple mediums and foci: illustrations to oil, murals to tapestries, landscapes to portraits. He could do it all but when it came to painting young people, he carved a unique niche for weaving together the accuracy of rendering with a delightful instinct for capturing the inspiration and spirit of each subject’s life and character.

Comins was thus a logical choice when a portrait of young, prematurely deceased, Calvin Coolidge Jr. was commissioned in 1925 and presented by Mrs. Grace Coolidge, with gratitude, to the dedicated doctors, nurses, and staff of Walter Reed Hospital in December 1927. It had been Walter Reed where Calvin was taken for care and where he had spent his final week. Here is that wonderful young man – Calvin Coolidge Jr., as his parents remembered him, blessed with the ability to remain “a boy for all eternity.”

2 thoughts on “On the Painters, Part 1

  1. Brilliant article, Daniel! A great demonstration of your research skills, engaging writing style, and genuine love and appreciation of Mr. Coolidge and his family. I’m eagerly awaiting Part 2. Keep up the good work!

  2. Pingback: On the Painters, Part 2 | The Importance of the Obvious

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.