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John Singer Sargent, Theodore Roosevelt, 1903, oil on canvas, 58 1/2 × 40 1/2 in., Washington, DC: White House.

Background on the Painting

Sargent's painting would be the official portrait of the President Theodore Roosevelt, but it wasn't the first. In 1902 Theobald Chartran had been commissioned to paint portraits of the President and his wife. Although she enjoyed hers (a feminine portrait of her on a bench outside the White House in a wide brimmed hat) TR simply hated his. At first they tried to hide it in an upper corridor in the darkest place on the wall. When the family made fun of it by calling it the "Mewing Cat," Roosevelt disliked it so much that he eventually had it destroyed.

What TR really wanted, predictably, was a "man's portrait" by a "real man's artist". A year before the commission, Roosevelt found his man in the burly Singer-Sargent and said, "He is, of course, the one artist who should paint the portrait of an American President."

But Sargent wasn't going to have an easy time with this trust-busting, Big Stick-carrying, Panama canal-building and "Rough Rider" President. TR, having been stung once, would take no nonsense from the artist no matter how renowned he was.

The two men surveyed the house and Sargent attempted to make sketches of his subject in various rooms trying to find the best lighting and pose, but nothing was working. This didn't sit well with the ever restless President. As they climbed the stairs to try and find a better arrangement on the second level, Roosevelt brusquely remarked that he didn't think Sargent had a clue as to what he, Roosevelt, wanted. Sargent, also losing patience, shot back that he didn't think that TR, himself, knew what was needed to pose for a portrait. Roosevelt, who, by then, had reached the landing, planted his hand on the balustrade post, turned onto the ascending artist and said, "Don't I!" Sargent had found his picture.

If a person doubts the ability of Sargent to capture the essence of the man or woman, then they have only to look at the Portrait of President Theodore Roosevelt. It was informal but strong. It was modern but respectful. It was exactly what Roosevelt wanted and he would adore the portrait for the rest of his life. It had exactly captured, in the President's eyes, the essence of his energy as well as his presidency.

Though Sargent would eventually hit a home run with the portrait, the rocky beginnings were but telling signs of the entire commission. TR wouldn't stay still and would only consent to a half-hour a day after lunch. Aides and secretaries were constantly moving in and around him disrupting his concentration, and there was hardly enough time for Sargent to even reach his emotional groove for painting.

Painting Background source URL -


Public license

The two-dimensional work of art depicted in this image is in the public domain in the United States and in those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 100 years. This photograph of the work is also in the public domain in the United States (see Bridgeman Art Library v. Corel Corp.).

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  • (del) (cur) 13:41, 13 March 2006 . . Jrousso ( Talk | contribs) . . 520×800 (130,499 bytes) (John Singer Sargent's portrait of Theodore Roosevelt (1903) - Oil on Canvas - Hangs in the White House)

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