TV on DVD: Picturing the Presidents (2008)

A DVD You'll Want to Add
To Your Art Collection:

Take Home a Piece of History

On February 10, 2009

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"I've been looking so long at these pictures of you
That I almost believe that they're real
I've been living so long with my pictures of you
That I almost believe the pictures are all I can feel."
-- From "Pictures of You"
By The Cure

(1990; Written by Robert Smith)

While most people depend upon first impressions when trying to decide just what they think of someone new, usually first impressions (which are often deceiving) get the chance for numerous new impressions as we encounter others again and again.

However, for a public figure or someone we do not know-- imagery is all powerful and perhaps most of all for the leaders of our free world since without the benefit of first impressions or firsthand accounts of the founding fathers, our first impression of men like George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, and John Tyler (just to name the initial presidents) depended solely on artistic presentation whether it was in painted portraiture, the scathing political cartoons of the past, or eventually in photography.

While James K. Polk was the first American president ever captured on camera, it was Abraham Lincoln who understood that to the national public-- image was indeed everything. This was similar to George Washington who decided-- in stark opposition to the stuffy European countries of his era which felt the new world of America was backward and unrefined--that it was therefore important to begin a legacy of presidential portraiture.

And in taking off on Washington's decision of its value, Lincoln carried it on considerably as the rather unattractive and rough presence of Lincoln-- including his famously unruly hair-- helped secure him the oath of office when photographer Matthew Brady snapped the most famous picture of the man, taking the time to make Lincoln look truly presidential.

The camera-- which changed everything-- offered citizens the chance to see from one piece of history to the next with unparalleled clarity the enormous toll the Civil War had on Lincoln as he looked as though he'd visibly aged so much throughout the photographs yet the art of oil painting and classical portraiture was not lost.

Although public relations savvy Andrew Jackson hired a spin doctor for two decades to maintain his popular image--understanding the way that portraiture could be used as propaganda to make one look larger than life-- the styles employed in this art form have changed over the course of the years.

This found John F. Kennedy opting for a more impressionistic look courtesy of Willem de Kooning whereas Lyndon Johnson decided that the entire process was unbearable sitting for just fifteen minutes before he fell asleep which resulted in the artist having to spend hundreds of hours working on the portrait from other source material only for Johnson to exclaim it was the "ugliest thing" he'd ever seen.

While political cartoons reigned supreme in the free land where one cannot be jailed for freedom of expression and it's the ultimate democracy of the country including its many, many voices (both professionally scholarly and amateur) included in this made-for-television Smithsonian Channel feature that makes this such a fascinating topic-- the DVD releasing on February 10 from Infinity Entertainment Group in order to be available for President's Day next week offers some extraordinary food for thought. It does this in questioning the way that image and art have shaped our views of the leaders who shaped our nation for more than two hundred years.

An ideal documentary for school libraries and classrooms and one that has an overlapping interest for those interested in not just American history but also artistic history, the seventy minute disc illuminates the collection of art which is housed and available on display 364 days every year at the Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C.

Additionally, it invites us into the debate of the way that the painterly impressions have seemed to transcend the canvas into our mindscape so as to think that the pictures and the men who came before us are one and the same when the truth is so much more complicated. Thus in the end, by looking so long at the pictures that seem real, one is torn between the fact and the fiction all captured either on camera, via pencil, or by brush.