The Senate’s oil portrait of John Adams by Eliphalet F. Andrews is a reverse-image copy of a George P.A. Healy work now owned by the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Andrews was a successful portraitist in the late 19th century who supplied several government agencies with images of famous Americans.
For more than a century after the founding of the United States, portraits of military figures, early presidents, and other heroes were in high demand. Gilbert Stuart, for example, might paint a hundred replicas or variants of his life portraits of George Washington, but there would still be room for hundreds more copies, as well as copies of copies by artists of varying degrees of skill. In this instance, the highly accomplished George P.A. Healy in 1860 copied Stuart’s 1800/1815 portrait of Adams–-now in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.–-for a commission by Thomas B. Bryan of Chicago, who had purchased several other presidential portraits from the artist that same year.
The Healy copy in turn was copied by Andrews, who then sold his version to the federal government through Architect of the Capitol Edward Clark. Possibly commissioned by Clark on behalf of Congress, it is an odd work in two respects: First, the composition, as noted, is reversed, a decision and process that would entail a great deal of effort. Second, Andrews later professed no clear memory of painting the copy.
Andrews was born in Ohio and trained in Dusseldorf, Paris, and Berlin. He moved to Washington, D.C., following the election of his friend Rutherford B. Hayes as president. Andrews subsequently established the art instruction program at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1877 and served as the art school’s director from 1887 until 1902. He became a greatly admired teacher, but as an artist he was less distinguished. His work as a portraitist–-and there was a great deal of it–-seems to have consisted, in large part, of copies of portraits (the capital city is replete with them). In her book Ohio Art and Artists, Edna Clark remarked, “He knew more than he painted.”
It is hard to imagine why Andrews would choose to reverse the figure in this painting of Adams. He did not do so in his other copies, so far as is known. Otherwise, he stays close to Stuart’s composition. Comparison of the Andrews and Healy copies with the original leads to the conclusion that Healy, a skilled copyist, is faithful to Stuart both in handling and in characterization. Andrews also retains the character, but his Adams is less immediate, less vital. His modeling is effective, but his brushwork is thicker and more opaque than that of Stuart or Healy. For instance, the edge of the white shirt is a long, unsubtle brushload of paint, and the mass of hair is generalized and heavy. Stuart’s trademark transparency of touch is absent. In addition, in Stuart’s painting, the left forearm, cuff, and hand seem almost an awkward afterthought; Andrews suppresses the arm (now the right) still more. However, the silvery sheen on Adams’s forehead, a mannerism of Stuart’s later years, is very neatly imitated not only by Healy but also by Andrews.
On March 21, 1881, Eliphalet Andrews announced in a short note to Edward Clark, “I have the copy of John Adams finished and would be pleased to show it to you before returning the original to the Corcoran Gallery.” But on July 2, 1910, in response to a query from Elliott Woods, superintendent of the U.S. Capitol building and grounds, Andrews wrote, “I do not remember having painted a portrait of John Adams although I may have done so as I have painted many public portraits for govt. in Washington. If I did paint it, it must have been done during the life of Chief Architect Clark and if so it would undoubtedly have been copied from the one in the Corcoran Gallery of Art, copied by George P.A. Healy from the original Gilbert Stuart. I do remember Mr. Clark having given me an order for some portrait.”
The final sentence here may suggest that Andrews was commissioned for the copy. As for forgetting the painting, Andrews was not only prolific, he was also 75 years old. Twenty-nine years had passed since he had painted the work.
1. Edna Maria Clark, Ohio Art and Artists (1932; reprint, Detroit: Gale Research, 1975), 103.
John Adams, the first vice president and second president of the United States, was born in Braintree (now Quincy), Massachusetts, into a family noted for public service. As a young man, Adams practiced law while taking an active role in local politics. He attacked the Stamp Act of 1765, becoming an increasingly avid and prominent resister of British authority. Yet in defense of liberty—in this case against mob violence—Adams in 1770 agreed to represent the British soldiers accused of murder in the Boston Massacre. Although their subsequent acquittal angered some patriots, the politically independent Adams won enough approval to secure a seat in the Massachusetts assembly later that year
An avowed supporter of American independence, Adams was elected a delegate from Massachusetts to the first and second Continental Congresses. As a member of the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence, Adams led the debate that ratified the document. Thomas Jefferson acknowledged Adams as the Declaration's "pillar of support on the floor of Congress, its ablest advocate and defender."
During the war years, Adams held various diplomatic appointments in Europe and returned briefly to Massachusetts in 1779 to help draft the state's constitution. With John Jay and Benjamin Franklin, he negotiated the provisional articles of the peace treaty with Great Britain that ended the War of Independence, and he later became the first U.S. minister to Great Britain from 1785 to 1788. As the popular candidate of the New England Federalists, Adams was twice elected vice president under George Washington. After Washington's retirement, Adams was elected president in 1796.
Adams's presidency was dominated by strife within his cabinet over relations between the United States and France. Vice President Thomas Jefferson and his Republican supporters sympathized with France; the opposition, led by Adams's rival within the Federalist Party, Alexander Hamilton, favored military action against the French. Adams sent peace commissioners to France and preserved United States neutrality—but at a personal cost. Alienated from the Federalists for avoiding war with the French and abandoned by the populace for his reluctant support of the repressive Alien and Sedition Acts, Adams lost the presidency to Thomas Jefferson in the election of 1800.
Adams retired from public life and spent his final years at the family homestead in Quincy. There he drafted lengthy letters to friends and former colleagues, including a notable 15-year correspondence with one-time opponent Thomas Jefferson. Both men died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of American independence.
1. Mark O. Hatfield, Vice Presidents of the United States, 1789-1993 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1997), 4.