Legacy and the Presidency

John Adams, 1826, Gilbert Stuart

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Andrew Jackson, 1836-37, Ralph Eleaser Whiteside Earl

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This pair of portraits of our second and seventh presidents echoes the same transition from aristocrat to self-made man seen in Daniel La Motte and Independence (Squire Jack Porter). The transition of the presidency of the son of John Adams, John Quincy Adams, to the presidency of Andrew Jackson was a triumph for the common man. Jackson was the first president who did not rise to prominence due to education, wealth or family background like his predecessors. Jackson’s election showed that it was not any of these things that ensured a place in the highest office of the land, rather, it was the candidate’s ability to appeal to the voter, the “common man.” Jackson’s presidency extended voting rights to men who did not own land, a previous requirement for voting.

Activity: Observe and Interpret

Artists make choices in communicating ideas. Compare the portraits of presidents John Adams and Andrew Jackson. What were the artists trying to communicate about these men? How do the artists capture each man’s personality? What input do you think each president may have had in determining how his portrait looked? What visual clues has each artist provided to send a particular message about each president? Observing details and analyzing components of the painting, then putting them in historical context, enables the viewer to interpret the overall message of the work of art.

John Adams_face cropObservation: What do you see?

John Adams

The portrait of John Adams by Gilbert Stuart depicts the elderly 2nd President of the United States seated in the corner of a red upholstered sofa. The curved frame of the sofa envelopes the frail frame of the elderly Founding Father. His face shows telltale signs of his advanced age – wrinkled flesh, dimmed blue eyes, and a puckered mouth, twisted and sunken from a lack of teeth. His bony right hands grasps the top of a cane, yet another indication of his fragile state. Despite these signs of age, Adams gazes out at the viewer with a direct, intense stare, reminding us of the man he once was – a tenacious, strong-willed legal mind that helped orchestrate the American Revolution.

Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson_Jackson face crop

In a full-length portrait, Andrew Jackson is depicted on the portico of the White House. He stands erect, dressed in stately clothing. The deep black color of his suit is starkly contrasted with the brilliant red color of his cloak and his starched white ruffled shirt. Jackson carries a walking stick in one hand and in the other he grasps a white leather glove. His iconic white and black beaver hat rests upside down on a gilded, red silk upholstered chair. Behind him, weeping willow trees flank a porte-cochère, or covered entryway, to the White House. A dirt road leading out of the entryway hints at a winding path through the streets of Washington, D.C., all the way to the Capitol Building (as it looked in 1836), which is situated in the far distance. A lingering red-golden sun sets behind the figure of Jackson, while darker clouds from an impending night sky frame his face and trademark head of thick white hair.

Interpretation: What does it mean?

John Adams

Gilbert Stuart painted Adams at his home in Quincy, Massachusetts when the former president was eighty-nine years old. Though suffering various physical infirmities, Adams’ mind was still clear and sharp and most of the time he was in good spirits, exhibiting a lively sense of humor. Family friend Josiah Quincy, then the mayor of Boston, remarked that in his portrait “Stuart caught a glimpse of the living spirit shining through the feeble and decrepit body. He saw the old man at one of those happy moments when the intelligence lights up the wasted envelope, and what he saw he fixed upon the canvas.” Adams’ son John Quincy Adams, who commissioned this portrait, recalled seeing his father late in life, writing, “Within the two last years, since I had seen him, his eyesight has grown dim, and his limbs stiff and feeble. He is bowed with age, and scarcely can walk across a room without assistance.” This visit with his father convinced him to commission Stuart to paint a portrait of his father. Unlike the larger-than-life portrait of Andrew Jackson, the intimate scale of Adams’ portrait suggests a personal rather than ceremonial intent.

Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson_Capitol Hat crop

The full-length, larger-than-life portrait of President Andrew Jackson, dubbed the ‘National Picture’ by its artist, is the portrait of Jackson most in keeping with the tradition of presidential “state” portraiture. The tradition of state portraiture was a convention adopted by American artists from Europe. Ralph E.W. Earl’s portrait of Jackson echoes Gilbert Stuart’s famous Lansdowne Portrait of George Washington in both scale and prominence. Jackson is depicted on the White House’s South Portico, his back to the Capitol Building – suggesting his longstanding difficulties with Congress. The president is dressed in a scarlet-lined military cloak, alluding to his military background, yet his black suit, white ruffled dress shirt, gloves, and walking cane remind us of his impending transition from statesman to civilian farmer. The weeping willows and his trademark white beaver hat with black mourning hat band serve as reminders that Jackson’s presidency began with the death of his beloved wife Rachel. Jackson acquired the hat in 1829 from Washington D.C. hatter Orlando Fish and was rarely seen without it until his death in 1845. The golden autumnal sunset is representative of the conclusion of Jackson’s time in office; the sun figuratively setting on his administration. One contemporary reviewer called the sunset “emblematic of his glorious official retirement.”

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Historical Background

The Role of Presidential Portraiture

Public perception of American political figures, especially the president, has always been influenced in some way by mass media. In the twentieth century, the advent of radio and television in the twentieth century gave the American public greater access to the president. They could hear him on the radio, and later, could see him on television. But in the nineteenth century mass media, and consequently the public’s access to the president, was very limited. Public perception of the president was drawn from sources like pamphlets, political cartoons, and prints based off of paintings. It is for this reason that presidential portraiture was extremely important in the nineteenth century and had the power to shape the opinions of those who viewed it. Consequently, image was, and still is, vital in shaping a president’s legacy.

Andrew Jackson: A ‘National Picture’

As Andrew Jackson transitioned from military general to presidential candidate to president, it was vital that the portraits produced of him reflected this change. Jackson endured heavy controversy surrounding his actions during the War of 1812. Following Jackson’s win against allied British and Indian forces at the Battle of New Orleans, the Florida-based Creek and Seminole Indians refused to recognize U.S. claims to their land. Jackson spurred into action, invading Spanish-held Florida without proper approval from Congress. He then consequently arrested, tried, and executed two British nationals accused of aiding the Indians. Despite calls for punishment for having essentially declared war on a foreign country, Jackson was never reprimanded by then-President James Monroe. In fact, after his retirement from the army, he was appointed governor of the newly acquired Florida Territory.

When Jackson decided to run for the presidency in 1824, he and his advisers were eager to minimize the controversy surrounding his military actions and emphasize the connection Jackson had to the public as a representative of the “Common Man.” The depiction of Jackson as the quintessential Southern gentleman farmer, was a wholly American image evoking the simplicity of the farming life, of the Common Man. Jackson often referred to himself as “a plain cultivator of the soil.” Consequently, Jackson’s favorite portrait painter Ralph Eleaser Whiteside Earl began to produce more portraits of Jackson clothed in civilian dress, as military dress might recall Jackson’s controversial actions during the War of 1812.

Jackson was not the first U.S. president to alter his image; George Washington also successfully transitioned his public image from military general to that of statesman. Unlike Jackson, Washington’s military career was widely praised, so his transition to statesmen was not out of political expediency. The overwhelming number of prints that were produced of the statesman-like Washington is a testament to the success of that transition. Even after his presidency Jackson continued to emulate Washington, preferring to retire to his plantation rather than seek further political office after his term as president.

Andrew Jackson, 1836-1837, Ralph Eleaser Whiteside Earl, Smithsonian American Art Museum

Andrew Jackson, 1836-1837, Ralph Eleaser Whiteside Earl, Smithsonian American Art Museum

Demand for Jackson’s likeness increased during his second campaign for the presidency in 1828, with the availability of inexpensive engraved prints. The distribution of presidential likenesses and political cartoons provides an excellent indication into the extent of political awareness among the American public in the early nineteenth-century. At the time the nation was still young, having just barely celebrated its fiftieth birthday. Material objects displaying presidential images helped Americans to visualize a national identity for their young country and instilled in them a sense of national pride. The scale and variety of material objects available to citizens was immense; from presidential prints hung on walls, to pitchers and snuff boxes emblazoned with a favorite president’s portrait. More universally, presidential images in the 1820s served to assist in unifying a young country which had already lived through two brutal wars. The nation now coalesced behind the idea of the presidency as unifying institution. The images also provided an article of national pride, reaffirming public confidence in the young republic.

On the eve of Jackson’s retirement from office in 1836, Ralph Eleaser Whiteside Earl painted this full-length portrait of the outgoing president, which he called the ‘National Picture.’ It depicts Jackson in the civilian dress of a statesman, and is the portrait of Jackson most in keeping with the tradition of state portraiture – a convention adopted by American artists from Europe. Instead of having their leaders bedecked in the trappings of monarchial power like jewels and ermine fur capes, American artists deliberately chose to portray their leaders in a more modest approach.

Though Jackson’s portrait is grand in scale (larger than life), compositional elements in the portrait such as the landscape background and style of clothing are kept relatively simple and understated – a notion in keeping with Jackson’s image as the “Common Man.” Similarly, emblems of the new republic, like the Capitol Building, are incorporated into the composition – as opposed to symbols of monarchial power found in European portraits of this scale and importance. Gilbert Stuart’s stately full-length portrait of George Washington, known as the Lansdowne Portrait, is one of the earliest, most significant portraits to employ American emblems of democracy. Earl’s portrait of Jackson certainly echoes Stuart’s in scale and prominence. Situated on the White House’s South Portico, his back to the Capitol Building, Jackson’s scarlet-lined military cloak alludes to his military background, yet his somber black civilian dress, white ruffled shirt, gloves, and walking cane remind us of his transition from president to civilian land owner. The portrait honors Jackson’s retirement and intended to be consumed by the masses. In fact, the portrait was commissioned and entirely paid for by one dollar contributions from Washington, D.C. citizens, and was first displayed in City Hall. The work received immediate acclaim. In a letter to the Boston Statesman, an admirer claimed that the work would immortalize artist Earl as the Lansdowne Portrait had immortalized Gilbert Stuart.

John Adams: A Private Portrait

John Adams, c. 1800/1815, Gilbert Stuart, National Gallery of Art

John Adams, c. 1800/1815, Gilbert Stuart, National Gallery of Art

On the other end of the spectrum from Jackson’s state portrait, we are presented with an intimate portrait of our nation’s second president, John Adams, painted by Gilbert Stuart. Stuart, America’s foremost Revolutionary-era portrait painter, painted the eighty-nine-year-old former President and signer of the Declaration of Independence, John Adams, toward the end of his life at his home in Quincy, Massachusetts.

This portrait of Adams in the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s collection is an 1826 copy by Stuart of his original 1823 version, which is in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. In 1823 John Quincy Adams was serving as President James Monroe’s secretary of state, and it was during a visit to his father’s house that convinced Adams that he needed to commission a portrait of his father. Adams was deeply affected by the visit, recalling that “Within the two last years, since I had seen him, his eyesight has grown dim, and his limbs stiff and feeble. He is bowed with age, and scarcely can walk across a room without assistance.” Less than two weeks later, Adams “called . . . upon Stewart the Painter, and engaged him to go out to Quincy, and there paint a Portrait of my father – More than twenty years have passed since he painted the former portrait; and time has wrought so much of change on his countenance that I wish to possess a likeness of him as he now is.”

John Adams, 1826, Gilbert Stuart, Smithsonian American Art Museum

John Adams, 1826, Gilbert Stuart, Smithsonian American Art Museum

Over the course of a year, Stuart made multiple trips to Quincy, Massachusetts beginning in 1823 to paint Adams’ portrait. Adams apparently enjoyed his sittings with the painter, stating, “I should like to sit to Stuart from the first of January to the last of December, for he lets me do just as I please and keeps me constantly amused by his conversation.” Though suffering various physical infirmities, Adams’ mind was still clear and sharp and most of the time he was in good spirits, exhibiting a lively sense of humor. Relative Josiah Quincy, then the mayor of Boston, remarked that in this portrait “Stuart caught a glimpse of the living spirit shining through the feeble and decrepit body. He saw the old man at one of those happy moments when the intelligence lights up the wasted envelope, and what he saw he fixed upon the canvas.”

In 1826, following his father’s death, John Quincy Adams asked Stuart to paint a posthumous copy of his father’s portrait. This is the version that is in the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s collection, gifted to the museum by Adams descendent Mary Louisa Adams Clement in 1950. John Quincy Adams recalled this second portrait in a diary entry dated October 4, 1831:

Stewart’s last portrait of my father. That portrait was painted at my special desire, about two years before my father’s decease and when he was in his ninetieth year. My purpose was to have a likeness of him in his last days by the first painter in this country. It has been a source of much gratification to me that this was effected [sic]. The picture is an excellent likeness, and one of the best that Stewart ever painted. After my father’s death I had a copy of it painted by Stewart himself which is at Washington. Charles [Francis Adams] has the original in his house in Boston.

Stuart painted Adams on a 1790s Chippendale sofa in the parlor of the Adams’ family home, called “Peacefield,” now part of the Adams National Historic Site. The sofa Adams sits on is original to the house and both the sofa and the cane upon which Adams rests his hand are still extant in the house. Since Chippendale furniture was already considered old-fashioned by the 1820’s, it has been suggested that Stuart chose to depict the sofa as an allusion to the Revolutionary era which was quickly fading from collective memory as its principal protagonists passed on.

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Primary Source Connections

The Adams Family Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society

“The Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive presents selections from the most important manuscript collection held by the Massachusetts Historical Society. Digital images of the letters exchanged between John and Abigail Adams, John Adams’s diary, and John Adams’s autobiography are presented alongside transcriptions.”

The Andrew Jackson Papers at the Library of Congress

The Andrew Jackson Papers at the Library of Congress contain more than 26,000 items dating from 1767 to 1874. Included are memoranda, journals, speeches, military records, land deeds, and miscellaneous printed matter, as well as correspondence reflecting Jackson’s personal life and career as a politician, military officer, president, slave holder and property owner.”

Literary Connections

John Adams McCullough

John Adams, 2002, David McCullough
Find it in a Library

“In this powerful, epic biography, David McCullough unfolds the adventurous life-journey of John Adams, the brilliant, fiercely independent, often irascible, always honest Yankee patriot — “the colossus of independence,” as Thomas Jefferson called him — who spared nothing in his zeal for the American Revolution; who rose to become the second President of the United States and saved the country from blundering into an unnecessary war; who was learned beyond all but a few and regarded by some as “out of his senses”; and whose marriage to the wise and valiant Abigail Adams is one of the moving love stories in American history.” – Goodreads

Excerpt: “So, it was done, the break was made, in words at least: on July 2, 1776, in Philadelphia, the American colonies declared independence. If not all thirteen clocks had struck as one, twelve had, and with the other silent, the effect was the same. It was John Adams, more than anyone, who had made it happen. Further, he seems to have understood more clearly than any what a momentous day it was and in the privacy of two long letters to Abigail, he poured out his feelings as did no one else.”

The Age of Jackson, 1945, Arthur M. Schlesinger
Find it in a Library

Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger discusses s the Age of Andrew Jackson from its inception to its influence upon the history of our country. The book captures the historical, cultural, economic and political life of the United States as it grew from Jefferson’s day to the violent early eruptions of financial and industrial forces that threatened the basic principles of our constitutional democracy. It is a dense, thorough discussion of Jacksonian democracy and classic liberalism. 

Artwork Connections

President Andrew Jackson, modeled 1835, Hiram Powers

Jackson, then silty-seven years old and in the sixth year of his presidency, sat for Powers near the president’s sitting room at the White House in a series of sittings from the fall of 1834 through the winter months of 1835. When the artist asked Jackson’s opinion of his likeness, Jackson replied: “Make me as I am, Mr. Powers. … I have no desire to look young as long as I feel old: and then it seems to me, although I don’t know much about sculpture, that the only object in making a bust is to get a representation of the man who sits, that it shall be as nearly as possible a perfect likeness. If he has no teeth, why then make him with teeth?”

Andrew Jackson, 1835, Ralph Eleaser Whiteside Earl

This portrait was created toward the end of Andrew Jackson’s second term as president of the United States. The painting recalls Jackson’s 1821 military governorship of Florida, referenced to by the Spanish-style architecture in the distant background.


Presidential Power: Crash Course Government and Politics – PBS (6 min) TV-G
This video looks at the expressed powers of the President of the United States – that is the ones you can find in the Constitution. From appointing judges and granting pardons, to vetoing laws and acting as the nation’s chief diplomat on foreign policy, the Commander in Chief is a pretty powerful person, but actually not as powerful as you might think.

Presidential Power: Crash Course Government and Politics – PBS (8 min) TV-G
This videocontinues the conversation on presidential powers by looking at those NOT found in the Constitution – implied or inherent powers. This video discusses how the president uses his or her power to negotiate executive agreements, recommend legislative initiatives, instate executive orders, impound funds, and claim executive privilege in order to get things done.

Age of Jackson: Crash Course US History – PSB (15 min) TV-G
This video teaches you about the presidency of Andrew Jackson. It dicusses how Jackson got to be president, and how he changed the country when he got the job.

George Washington: Reading the Lansdowne Portrait (3 min)
A portrait not only depicts a specific sitter, but also often reflects the political culture of a time. David C. Ward, historian at the National Portrait Gallery, helps us read the Lansdowne portrait of George Washington to better understand the kind of society America was and the kind of society Americans wanted at the beginning of the republic.

Additional Smithsonian Resources

Exploring all 19 Smithsonian museums is a great way to enhance your curriculum, no matter what your discipline may be. In this section, you’ll find resources that we have put together from a variety of Smithsonian museums to enhance your students’ learning experience, broaden their skill set, and not only meet education standards, but exceed them.

Subject: History

The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden – Smithsonian National Museum of American History
Through this interactive website, learn about the men who have led our nation.

Andrew Jackson, America’s Original Anti-Establishment Candidate – Smithsonian Magazine
The nation’s seventh president raged against many of the same machines that are now engulfing the 2016 presidential election cycle.


Battle of New Orleans: (January 8-15, 1815) the final major battle of the War of 1812. The American forces, commanded by then-General Andrew Jackson, prevented a much larger, combined British-American Indian force from capturing New Orleans.

Common Man: the everyday, working class man – not a wealthy landowner or man of power like a politician. Andrew Jackson, despite his high office, became emblematic of the common man because he came from humble beginnings.

Gilbert Stuart: (1755-1828) American portrait painter, best known for his works of George Washington.

James Monroe: (1758-1831) 5th President of the United States. He oversaw major westward expansion of the continental U.S., and strengthened America’s foreign policy with the eponymous Monroe Doctrine (1823), which warned that any attempt by European powers to colonize the Western Hemisphere, or interfere with their politics, would been viewed as a hostile act against the United States.

John Quincy Adams: (1767-1848) 6th President of the United States. American statesman, diplomat, Senator, and member of the U.S. House of Representatives; son of the 2nd U.S. president John Adams.

Ralph Eleaser Whiteside Earl: (1785-1838) American painter, son of itinerant colonial portrait painter Ralph Earl (1751-1801). Ralph E.W. Earl is best known as the “court painter” to Andrew Jackson, having painted dozens of portraits of Jackson and his family.


U.S. History Content Standards Era 4 – Expansion and Reform (1801-1861)

    • Standard 1B –The student understands federal and state Indian policy and the strategies for survival forged by Native Americans.
      • 7-12 – Explain the causes of the Civil War and evaluate the importance of slavery as a principal cause of the conflict.
    • Standard 3A –The student understands the changing character of American political life in “the age of the common man.”
      • 7-12 – Relate the increasing popular participation in state and national politics to the evolving democratic ideal that adult white males were entitled to political participation.
      • 5-12 – Analyze the influence of the West on the heightened emphasis on equality in the political process.
      • 9-12 – Explain the combination of sectional, cultural, economic, and political factors that contributed to the formation of the Democratic, Whig, and “Know-Nothing” parties.
      • 9-12- Evaluate the importance of state and local issues, the rise of interest-group politics, and the style of campaigning in increasing voter participation.
      • 5-12 – Explain why the election of Andrew Jackson was considered a victory for the “common man.”
      • 7-12 – Analyze how Jackson’s veto of the U.S. Bank recharter and his actions in the nullification crisis contributed to the rise of the Whig party.

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