In the 1940s, Harold Edgerton invented stroboscopic photography, which allowed him to create “stop-action” images such as a bullet piercing a card. In 1963, television made it possible for an entire nation to witness the stop-action assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and Jackie’s reaction. In a deck of cards, the King of Hearts is the “suicide king” — so-called because he is nearly always thrusting a sword through his head.
Some called JFK suicidal because he insisted on riding in public without bulletproof protection. I painted two swords for the theory that two bullets were fired from different directions. This painting represents the instant President Kennedy was hit. Jackie doesn’t know what has happened yet, but she knows it’s bad. The painting is meant to capture the last moment of innocence for Jackie — and for an entire generation.
Frances was the daughter of Oscar Folsom, Grover Cleveland’s long-time friend. When Frances was eleven, Oscar died. Grover was appointed administrator of his estate and guided young Frances’ education. Forty-nine-year-old President Grover Cleveland married twenty-one-year-old Frances Folsom on 2 June 1886 in the White House. She became the youngest First Lady and the object of much curiosity. When Grover was asked why he hadn’t married before, he replied he was waiting for his wife to grow up.
Despite baseless rumors that Frances was unhappy and abused, she delighted in her role as First Lady. When Grover was defeated in the 1888 Presidential campaign, she defiantly announced that she would be First Lady again in four years. In 1892, Grover became the only President to win two nonconsecutive terms, and Frances returned triumphantly to Washington. She was a very popular public figure and held a great deal of influence over her robust husband. In Frances’s portrait, it is clear who is pulling the strings. Five years after Grover’s death, Frances became the first presidential widow to remarry.
When Martha Jefferson died 10 years after her marriage to Thomas, he was so inconsolable people began to think he had gone mad. Rumor has it he made a deathbed promise to Martha never to remarry. There is a lot of talk about whether Jefferson fathered his black slave Sally Hemings’ children. Science can only tell us that some Jefferson did — but not which one. I feel that the real story is being overlooked. Most people don’t know that Sally was Martha’s half-sister and that, by written accounts, she looked like Martha. Sally moved into the White House after Martha’s death. How strange it must have been for Jefferson to be constantly reminded of his dead wife. Sally’s children were the only slaves Jefferson freed; he did so upon his death, but by that time a couple of Sally’s children had already escaped. Being so fair-skinned, they passed into white society keeping their past a secret.
Ida had once been a vigorous young woman with luminous eyes, but her mental and physical condition deteriorated rapidly after the death of her mother and the difficult birth of her second child, who died 5 months later. Besides developing phlebitis, which made it difficult for her to walk, she is believed to have suffered brain damage. Ida became obsessed with the notion that God also wanted her other child Katie. All of Ida’s protectiveness was in vain — Katie contacted typhoid fever and died at the age of 4.
William was unselfishly devoted to Ida’s care, despite the demands of the Presidency. The McKinleys broke White House protocol by sitting next to each other during state dinners, so that William would be near at hand to conceal Ida’s face with his napkin when he sensed her body growing rigid and a seizure coming on. He would then proceed with the meal as if nothing had happened.
This painting shows the tension between Ida and William when he hears the tell-tale hissing sound she made when a seizure was imminent. William was assassinated. As he lay dying, his thoughts went to his wife and he implored his secretary: “Be careful how you tell her — oh, be careful.”
Jane and Franklin Pierce had three sons. One month before Franklin’s 1853 inauguration, they lost their last one, 12-year-old Bennie, in a train accident before their eyes. Jane believed this tragedy to be God’s way of providing her husband more time to devote to the Presidency. For the next 2 years, Jane refused to come down from the second story of the White House, where she spent her days writing letters of apology to Bennie. Jane kept a box with locks of hair of all her dead children. She called the locks of hair her “precious ones.” My painting of Jane is how I imagined she might have looked — unable to sleep, pacing the White House with her precious ones.
Bess Truman steadfastly guarded her family’s privacy. Harry, Bess, and her mother lived together in Bess’s family home in Independence, Missouri, from the time they were newlyweds. Bess often returned, even during Harry’s Presidency. Two of Bess’s brothers also built homes behind their domineering and needy mother’s house.Harry worried that if he ran for President, Bess’s family secret would be exploited. This secret is represented in my painting by the two black windows. Bess is taking refuge in the shadows while holding Harry to the light. In stark contrast to today’s political ugliness, Bess’s family secret was never made public: When she was 16 years old, early one morning her father went into the bathroom and blew his brains out. Bess Truman died in her home in Independence at the age of 97, our longest-lived First Lady.
On 4 March 1952, actress Nancy Davis married actor Ronald Reagan. Friends and critics would agree that from the moment they met, Nancy had eyes only for Ronnie.
On 5 November 1994, Ronald Reagan informed the nation in a letter that he had Alzheimer’s disease. He wrote, “I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life.”
Ronald Reagan died 10 years later, on 5 June 2004. Nancy, like a heroine in an old western movie, stood loyally and protectively by her husband as he faded from public view and into his dimming memory. You can almost hear Frank Sinatra crooning Al Dubin and Henry Warren’s “I Only Have Eyes For You” as the stage lights go out:
My love must be a kind of blind love I can’t see anyone but you. And dear I wonder if you find love an optical illusion too?
History makes very little mention of Hannah Hoes Van Buren. We know this: Hannah had blue eyes and spoke with a Dutch accent. Hannah and her husband Martin spoke Dutch at home. She bore four sons to Martin and died of tuberculosis at the age of thirty-five, seventeen years before her husband became President.
Hannah’s daughter-in-law Angelica Singleton Van Buren served as First Lady and secured her own place in history, but Angelica does not interest me — these paintings are about our Presidents’ wives: alive, dead, or in the shadows. With so little source material on Hannah, I decided to use her early death to explore larger themes: fleeting youth, the fragility of life, the inevitability of death. I gave Hannah red hair — her husband was a redhead, she was Dutch; maybe it was true. I put a young, thin-waisted Hannah on a horse riding on a trail of broken Delft tiles, riding out of the painting and out of history. In the landscape is a skull — a frequent art symbol for mortality — and a small windmill. The windmill represents all things Dutch, a reminder that the USA has always been a melting pot of immigrants.
Betty Ford was lively and opinionated. She was an advocate for such causes as the Equal Rights Amendment, rights for the handicapped, rights for the mentally handicapped, liberalized abortion laws, and the early detection of breast cancer (she underwent a mastectomy while First Lady). After her years in the White House, she admitted to alcoholism and helped establish the Betty Ford Clinic (a chemical-dependency recovery center).
Betty’s brave and candid revelations about her breast cancer and alcoholism helped create a more open climate for discussing these issues, and surely helped save and improve many lives.
But there is another side of Betty. She was a dancer — serious enough to have studied under Martha Graham. She also was a White House prankster who loved to laugh. In her autobiography, Betty discloses her fear that history might overlook her lighter side and associate her only with social causes. In this painting, Betty is depicted dancing for herself, unaware that Gerald has entered the painting.
Between the years 1921 and 1922, Mamie Eisenhower would morn the loss of her son Icky, move to Panama, and give birth to her only other child, John. She would also do something that would go down in history — Mamie would cut her bangs.
Between 1942 and 1945, Ike would become a household name, a world-famous general, and an American war hero.
By the early fifties, Mamie’s unhappiness, brought on by long separations from her husband and the painful rumors of a possible war-time affair, would be only memories. Things were looking up for Mamie, and the nation had time to notice her bangs. This was the fabulous fifties.
Mamie was an active player in both of Ike’s presidential campaigns. The lady in pink basked in the attention and gained a large following of admirers. Even Ike wore an “I like Mamie” button. In 1952, campaign songs such as “Mamie” and “I want Mamie” could be heard. Optimism and faith in the American dream was on the rise. For the first time, large numbers of women went to the ballot, and a president was elected on the woman’s vote. This was not surprising, since the bulk of Ike’s campaign targeted the American housewife. There were slogans such as “Let’s sweep out the White House” and “Be a party girl,” and there were promises to “bring the boys back” (from Korea). Paraphernalia such as “I like Ike” stockings, telephones, and broaches could be purchased. You could even buy a Mamie tape dispenser. Mamie would serve as First lady from 1953 until 1961, and millions of American women would cut their bangs.
Mamie’s portrait started out as an older version of Mamie; she was 56 when the Eisenhowers entered the White House in 1953. But this is a painting of the fabulous fifties! So I put on my rose-colored glasses and Mamie became an ideal woman of the era — a bright-eyed lady in pink, smiling with innocent optimism through time. The fifties, however, were not so simple or so blissful. Widespread injustice was brewing, giving birth to the civil rights and labor movements. This was the first time large numbers of women voted in opposition to their husbands — so a couple can be seen kissing while holding buttons from the opposing parties behind each others backs. The fifties was an era of subliminal advertising, so there are two of hearts hidden throughout the painting. Of course everyone was tooting their own horn, so there is even a plug for me (the painter) — can you find it?
As the wife of the first President of the United State, Martha was destined to be an American icon. Martha surely could not imagine that Americans would forever see her as a little, white-haired lady with a hair doily. I choose to paint a younger Martha, minus her hair net; a Martha more the way she might have looked when George fell in love with her. The intense red background and oversized nail add an iconic overtone.
Elizabeth Monroe was a tall, raven-haired beauty with pale blue eyes who liked fashion and wore low-cut dresses. Many American ladies complained that she had no right to be so beautiful in her fifties, and found her choice of clothing scandalous. The French, on the other hand. loved Elizabeth and called her “La Belle Americain” — the beautiful American! James Monroe was, for a time, the American Minister to France. During the French Revolution, Elizabeth used her influence to secure the release of General Lafayette’s wife from prison.
Elizabeth Monroe suffered from a mysterious ailment during the second half of her life and, in her late sixties, sustained severe burns after she tumbled into a fireplace. She died in 1830, a few years after this accident.
Caroline Harrison was a Sunday painter. While First Lady, she conducted china-painting classes, though her creative urges were mainly spent on renovating the President’s house, with special attention to the Red Room. She felt the White House was in dire need of an overhaul, so she had electricity installed throughout, even though she was too terrified of it to turn on a lamp.
Caroline died in the White House after contracting tuberculosis. In my painting, Caroline’s restless spirit enters the Red Room to admire her own renovation work — or perhaps she returned in search of her niece Mary? Mary took care of Caroline during her illness, only to swoop in after Caroline’s death to marry the widower Benjamin, Caroline’s former husband.
Abigail Adams was often left by her husband John to take care of the farm during his frequent absences — once as America’s representative in France, he was away for 4 years! They exchanged more letters than any other first couple. In this painting, it is 5 A.M. John is preparing to leave once again. Abigail is too distraught to eat, but John is having sausages and plums. The hummingbird, attracted by the flowers in Abigail’s hair, has become trapped — a metaphor for Abigail’s responsibilities on the farm as John pursued his career. The red bow around Abigail’s neck reinforces the connection between the bird and Abigail. John Adams rose to renown for fighting against the Stamp Act and taxation without representation. If the Stamp Act (a tax on paper products including playing cards) had succeeded, the British seal would have looked like the design on Abigail’s teapot, most likely without the addition of John Adam’s portrait. John did succeed though, and a whole lot of tea was dumped into the ocean. The British finally said the hell with it, and after two brief wars left us alone.
Everybody asks me about the cat with the cataract. It’s a very old cat.
James Buchanan was our only bachelor President, and may well have been our first gay President. According to popular mythology of his day, James was engaged to Anne Coleman. Anne committed suicide after a mysterious argument with James. Brokenhearted, he never dated again. In fact, James lived with a man whose last name was King (note the card in his pocket) for 20 years. A popular card game for children, Old Maid leaves the one holding the Old Maid card as the loser. I thought it would be fun to do a spin on the game by making our only bachelor President the Old Maid.
James was hardly a loser. He was a U.S. Representative, minister to Russia, minister to Great Britain, U.S. Senator, Secretary of State, and President.
Woodrow Wilson had two wives during his two terms as President. The first was Ellen, seen here as a head, cut out and tumbled to the floor. Ellen enjoyed the White House weddings of two of her three daughters. She died of Bright’s disease in the White House in 1914. Woodrow was so distraught, he told his aide he wished to be assassinated; but Woodrow had other concerns to occupy himself with: five days before Ellen’s death, World War I had begun in Europe.
By the end of 1915, Woodrow was remarried to Edith Galt, a 43-year-old widow and relative of Pocahontas. There were rumors that perhaps Woodrow and his fiery, rambunctious widow had murdered poor forgotten Ellen. Eventually, Edith won over America’s fickle heart. When Woodrow suffered a stroke in 1919, Edith screened all state matters and decided which ones to bring to the President’s attention — many consider her our first de-facto woman President.
Senator Clinton had her share of antagonists long before she became one of America’s most talked-about First Ladies. Hillary has been attacked for everything from her hairstyles to her ambition. Her story is not over yet.
Sometimes my ideas for paintings come in dreams; this one came in a particularly peculiar one. I was talking on an outdoor pay phone to Betty Ford discussing her portrait, when a fast-walking Hillary came purposely striding around the corner. I barely had time to shout over my shoulder, “Hey Hillary, how would you like your painting?” She replied, “Fishbowl.”