Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Smiling Presidents

American presidents started smiling for their official portraits in the mid 1970s or so.


Of course, they smiled for informal pictures before that.

Many cameras captured FDR with his famous smile. Rockwell painted Eisenhower for two Post covers in a rubbery grin. Jimmy Carter’s toothy smile was a big subject during his campaign.

But for the official and semi-official pictures, up until 30 or 40 years ago, presidents usually kept their faces dignified and serious. After Reagan, the full-on toothy smile (which is a very different challenge to paint) was here to stay.

Why the change? Was it the inevitable outcome of photography or was it the result of campaigning on television?

Are there other jobs that still demand a serious portrait, such as a Supreme Court justice, district attorney, or an undertaker?

19 comments:

Jennifer said...

forgot one

http://change.gov/newsroom/entry/new_official_portrait_released/

8)

I like his, half smile, half serious. Not nearly so doofus as Bush/Clinton/Reagan

Munchanka said...

Teddy is such a badass.

Meredith D. said...

Marines usually opt for the serious look. Compare the leadership here with the civilian Secretary of the Navy.

http://www.marines.mil/usmc/Pages/leaders.aspx

Cam said...

What is a good way to deal with portraits (oil, ink, pencil, etc) that have the full toothy smile?

How do you cheat the teeth to make them look natural? Is there a way to do it like showing the light patterns on hair so you don't try to draw every strand?

markw said...

Why the change? Better dental work?

Smurfswacker said...

It's appropriate that Reagan was the first president to smile for his portrait. His presidency marked the completion of a gradual change in the perception of the office.

Despite there being both "friendly" and "distant" presidents (e.g. FDR and Calvin Coolidge), for ages the presidency was perceived as a lofty position. Irrespective of political party, the president stood above the average person, the Boss or maybe the Patriarch of his country. We saw him mostly in photos (those usually posed and often formal) and read excerpts of his often majestic words in the newspapers.

This construct began to change with the advent of radio news, but it was TV news and portable video cameras that altered things forever. Every aspect of the president's life, once distant and vague, was opened to daily view. His public image became critically important. Reagan marked the final transformation of the president into a media personality, onstage 24/7, judged as much for his performance as a person as for his success as a leader.

Today the president (again, regardless of political party) is expected to seem approachable, chatty, one of the gang. We want him to seem "real." Seem is the operable word. So much is expected in terms of the president's public persona that a modern chief executive must be as good a PR man and an actor as he is a patriarch. Hence portraits with smiling faces, looser poses, less imposing suits.

Claire said...

I like it when the president portraits have a smile...
I'm just not fond of the "toothy grin"...
I'm all for a little mystery in the portraits...
Otherwise it feels like a high school yearbook picture (to me).
I also prefer a bit more of the side shot as opposed to strait on... I wonder what the discussion is like when they are deciding the pose for the picture/painting...
:)

Daroo said...

So in that last group there is a Sargent, a Zorn and several Kinstlers? Who can match the artist to the president?

Kendall A. said...

Another one of my favorite things I've noticed about president portraits: the shift from cravats and bow ties (cultured, refined, aristocratic) to straight ties (common, relaxed, informal). Teddy Roosevelt was the first president to make the switch, and, appropriately is remembered as the first modern president.

Rebecca said...

I'm not surprised that Regan, an actor who was used to smiling for the camera and being in the spotlight, is the one who started smiling for presidential portraits. What surprises me is that everyone followed suit and have made this the "norm".

It's very difficult to paint teeth without them looking funny, but it's compounded these days by the fact that so many people have their teeth whitened to unnaturally white levels!

KB said...

The final victory of Kodak, who invented the smiling portrait as an icon of friendly amateur photography, which was so successful in their advertising that it quickly accelerated into nearly every corner of portraiture.

As pre-Kodak aside, look at the work on smiles by Duchenne (& Darwin), e.g. http://www.humanillnesses.com/images/hdc_0000_0001_0_img0042.jpg

Petr Mores said...

Being East European, I noticed there is a very conspicuous cultural difference. For Americans (and also Australians), toothy smile in a photograph seems to be a requirement, and anything less than that is considered grumpy. For Europeans, wide smile seems to be optional and depends much more on personality and circumstances.

Similarly, Americans seem to always hold around shoulders when they take group pictures, whereas in Europe this would feel too close for comfort in most cases.

Needless to say, those are broad generalizations with many exceptions. One explanation I have heard is that Americans move around a lot more than Europeans during their lives so they developed a culture that helps to make friends quickly and easily.

BTW, thank you James for the fantastic blog. I've been following it daily for two years now and I love it as much as I did when I first discovered it!

My Pen Name said...

Someone said that in a 100 years or so we're all going to look like morons - previous generations portrayed people smiling - usually lunatics and drunks - but anyone wanting to display gravis didn't grin like a chershire cat. maybe no one wats to convey gravis anymore?

Arborescence said...

I similarly find painting portraits of smiling people more challenging. Can you perhaps address this in a future post? Thanks, Karen

Gabriel said...

Nice post!
Mr. Gurney, you can post LARGE pics, you don't have to edit them to small size. That way blogger will resize them to fit, but we'll be able to click and see the bigger version.

Randjan said...

Reagan was an actor, he used to smile all the time for all of his pictures, that's probably why he just kept that habit when he was photographed for the official pictures.

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