During this Presidents Week, we look back at presidential illustrations—between them, artists Norman Rockwell and Wendell Minor have painted their fair share.
No other statesman appears more in Norman Rockwell’s work than Abraham Lincoln, who is included in eight of the artist’s paintings between 1927 and 1964. Rockwell enjoyed painting Lincoln, not only as an affirmation of his private views but also because of the complexity of painting Lincoln’s face. Rockwell’s 1961 painting, Lincoln for the Defense, presents a dynamic illustration of the President as a determined young lawyer; “If you want to exalt a subject, you shoot up at him,” the artist once remarked.
The first use of a Rockwell Presidential portrait on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post came in 1952 when the artist painted General Dwight D. Eisenhower as the Republican candidate for the presidency. When Rockwell arrived in Denver for the modeling session, he said Eisenhower’s “eyes were far away.” In an attempt to get a smiling Eisenhower, Rockwell threw out a few remarks. The one that most changed the future President’s expression was “How are those grandchildren, General—pretty nice, eh?” The many expressions of President Eisenhower are included in Rockwell’s pictorial essay, “The Day I Painted Ike,” which featured inside of the same issue of the magazine (October 11, 1952). The artist would go on to paint President Eisenhower’s portrait one more time for the Post (October 3, 1956 cover).
Other Rockwell portraits of sitting or future presidents include John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, and then Governor of California, Ronald Reagan. In 1986, President Reagan agreed to serve as honorary chairman of the $5 million Campaign for Norman Rockwell to build the new Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge.
Currently on view at the Museum, Wendell Minor’s America offers its own selection of presidential artwork. An enthusiastic historian since his youth, Minor created his first children’s book illustrations for a biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, which was published in 1970. He would go on to become a successful illustrator for book covers, including biographies on Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Harry Truman (who appears in a stunning portrait created by the artist for author David McCullough’s award-winning 1992 biography).
Picking up where Norman Rockwell left off, Wendell Minor illustrated the story of our 16th President for Ann Turner’s picture book, Abe Lincoln Remembers; and again in 2008 for Robert Burleigh’s Abraham Lincoln Comes Home, a moving story about the travel of President Lincoln’s funeral train as told from the perspective of a young boy who witnessed the event (the original artwork for the book is now part of the permanent collection of Norman Rockwell Museum, thanks to a gift from Wendell Minor).
Other presidential picture books created by Minor include 2006’s Yankee Doodle America, which features a fun A-to-Z listing of significant events and people connected to the founding of our country. Represented in the book: “I” represents “Independence,” and features the artist’s illustration of John Adams; “J” stands for Thomas Jefferson, and “W” pays tribute to George Washington, who became America’s first president in 1789. Minor created the illustrations for Yankee Doodle America in the style of the colorful hand-painted signs from the era. Finally in a theme dear to his heart, Minor depicts the conservation efforts of our 26th President, Theodore Roosevelt, in his illustrations for author Jean Craighead George’s 2010 picture book, The Buffalo Are Back.
Happy Presidents Week from Norman Rockwell Museum.