Monday, February 16, 2015

Celebrating Presidents Day by Ranking Presidential Portraits

One day you will die and be forgotten.

Sorry, not a very good introduction. Let me try again.

Happy Presidents Day! Officially celebrated as George Washington's birthday, P-day is the day when we celebrate...having a president and being American, I guess. Or having the day off if you're a banker or a government employee. Or having to put out inventory and work harder if you're in retail.

Anyway, one day you will die and be forgotten.

But not if you're an American President! Then, you'll be forever immortalized by an official portrait, which will be hung forever in the hallowed halls of...the White House, I assume? The point is, some portraits are really good. Some are not. Here's a list dedicated to counting down the ten best and worst.

The Best Presidential Portraits

10. Thomas Jefferson

Simple, elegant, and also is it weird that I kind of think Jefferson looks a little like Liam Neeson here? Is that just me? Yes? Okay, fine. Moving along.

9. Harry Truman

I see this painting and I see a man with vision. What was that vision? Never mind, check out that background! It's downright magisterial, especially for a guy who looks like your parents' accountant. Lyndon Johnson tried to pull off the capitol-in-the-background look later on, but couldn't muster half the gravitas that Truman did.

8. Benjamin Harrison

A man and his books. I like it. With that beard, Benjamin Harrison was pulling off hipster-chic decades before it was cool, although his version was much, much better dressed. This may be the painting of a grandfather with too many rules who you secretly hated visiting when you were a kid, but as a presidential portrait it's great.

7. Rutherford B Hayes

Severe. Austere. Perfect posture. Fantastic beard. This is clearly a man who doesn't screw around. Apparently I have a thing for that look. Seriously, I had to disqualify Ulysses S. Grant because I ran out of ways to describe handsome beards without sounding weird.

6. Teddy Roosevelt

Damned if Teddy Roosevelt doesn't rock the power stance. Of course he does. There's no ornamentation besides the banister. Just Teddy, which is all you need thank you very much. It only would've been better if there was some kind of stuffed wild animal in the background. Or possibly a painting of Roosevelt in the act of slaughtering that wild animal.

5. Franklin Roosevelt

You know what I noticed when I was researching this post? With a few notable exceptions (we'll get there), the presidents most well-regarded or well-remembered by history tend to have great portraits. FDR is no exception. Look at that visage. Look at it! Yep. That's some visage. You don't see visages like that every day.

4. Woodrow Wilson

Here's what I like about this: Wilson looks like he has exactly zero interest being there. He's visibly irritated, leaning forward like he can't wait to leave. No doubt Edith Wilson firmly reminded him that the painter had been commissioned, and they will finish the portrait today. And somehow, it all comes together.

3. Franklin Pierce

You might think I'm going to make fun of that hairstyle. But you know what? No. I'm not going to do that. Because Mr. Pierce is owning it and Pulling. It. Off. That's pure confidence. Was he a terrible president? Yes. But it wasn't his portrait's fault.

2. Abraham Lincoln

That's just Abraham Lincoln, thinking about stuff. What's he thinking about? Important things, that's what. More important things than you're thinking about. Because that's what Abraham Lincoln spent all his time doing, if this portrait is to be believed--and with a painting this dignified, there's zero reason not to.

1. John F. Kennedy

It's not even close. I don't even have any jokes. This is a good painting, y'all.

The Worst Presidential Portraits

Sadly the hallowed history of the U.S. presidency has been marked by some pretty terrible paintings, too. I'm not saying I could have done a better job, just that maybe somebody could have. Instead it's there for the world to see, forever. It's like that picture on Facebook where you're making an embarrassingly stupid face and you already untagged yourself but it's still on Chad's Summer 2013 album and when you asked him to delete it he made it his profile picture and what's wrong with you Chad!?

10. William Henry Harrison

It's kind of unfair to make fun of a portrait just because the subject is a little on the homely side, especially when he barely even got to be president for a month. But...umm...maybe widows peaks were the fashion at the time?

9. Grover Cleveland

While President Cleveland's other portrait is perfectly adequate, this one makes him look like he's sitting on a medium sized rock, and also suffering from constipation.

8. John Tyler

Speaking of uncomfortable, here's John Tyler. Just manspreadin', holding a rumpled newspaper that looks like a diaper, and generally looking like someone who's never faked looking casual before.

7. Millard Fillmore

What is he pointing at? Why is he popping his hip like that? I'm going to blame this one on the artist. I'm sorry, Mr. Fillmore, you're not doing anything wrong (besides the Anton Chigurgh haircut), but your portrait, it isn't good.

6. Zachary Taylor

Hey look, Zachary Taylor was in the military. You know who else was in the military? George Washington. Ulysses Grant. Dwight Eisenhower. Do you see them dressed like that? No. No, you don't. You look like an ass, Zachary Taylor.

5. John Quincy Adams

So he's sitting in a chair with those dead eyes, gently caressing a picture of...his dad, I guess. Creepy. And he's got his finger in a book for some reason. Here's a rule: you get one accessory, presidential portrait painters. Just one.

4. James Buchanan

There are plenty of good looks for a presidential portrait, but "Come hither" isn't one unless you're Bill Clinton.

3. Andrew Jackson

This would have been an amazing portrait if Jackson was the president of Transylvania. But he wasn't the president of Transylvania. Also he was kind of an awful person. But that's not why he's on this list--the vampire Lestat look is more than enough for that.

2. George Washington

Yep, I'm about to diss George Washington on his birthday. Sorry George. So what's wrong with this painting? First of all, it looks like the painter based it off a marble bust instead of a human face. An angry marble bust. Also, what is Washington gesturing toward? His table? Is he selling it? Is this Presidential Antiques Roadshow? The artist somehow even made holding a sword look uncool. Also, Washington would super irritated to learn that Jefferson made the top 10 best list.

1. James Polk

You kind of want to find the painter and ask, "So, were you trying to make the President of the United States look like the guilty butler in a murder mystery? Because congratulations, you 100% nailed it." America's 11th President: Barty Crouch Jr.


  1. Comments on the 3 worst:
    .Maybe Jackson's sad eyes reflect his remembrance of the 10,000 Native Americans who died on his forced "trail of tears" - but I doubt it. Supposedly he never felt remorse for displacing 90,000, a number of whom helped him win the Battle of New Orleans.
    .I prefer the Washington pics where he's all dressed up in his Masonic garb.
    ."I swear I wasn't the one who ate the cookies before dinner. You've got to believe me."

    1. Funny article, and I couldn't agree more on JFK and Teddy.