Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
President Trump speaks in front of a portrait of former President Andrew Jackson during a swearing-in ceremony for new Attorney General Jeff Sessions at the White House in Washington Feb. 9, 2017.

The (semi) secret history of Trump’s Andrew Jackson portrait

Jackson, a populist outsider, was the first president to employ a full-time artist, who operated in a manner not unlike the White House photographers of today.

President Trump has hung a painting of Andrew Jackson in a prominent spot in the Oval Office, just behind his desk and off to the side. It’s meant as a visual comparison: Trump has embraced the idea that he’s a modern-day Old Hickory, a populist outsider and scourge of Washington elites.

It’s also a comparison that may be apt in an unintended way. The portrait itself – depicting a leonine Jackson, dignified in a dramatic cloak – was originally a bit of 19th century political PR. It was painted by Ralph E. W. Earl, a close friend of Jackson who churned out a stream of images aimed at convincing voters that the seventh president was a worthy member of America’s founding pantheon.

Thus presidents down the centuries invoke the past to try and claim their spot in the American experience. Jackson wanted the United States to look at his bearing and see someone as dignified and statesmanlike as George Washington. Trump and his aides hope a glimpse of the same image today will cause voters to associate a mercurial new president with Jackson’s fierce defense of ordinary citizens.

“It is definitely interesting the way they are using it,” says Rachel Stephens, an assistant professor of art history at the University of Alabama and author of the forthcoming book, “Selling Andrew Jackson: Ralph E. W. Earl and the Politics of Portraiture.”

Trump’s aides and associates have long pushed the notion that he’s a modern-day incarnation of Andrew Jackson, the first US president who was not a Virginia planter or a Massachusetts native named Adams. This is not just because of Jackson’s association with the rise of the (largely white) working class, his temper, and his rough charisma. It’s also due to the fact that Jackson was a transformational president who wrested the nation onto a new path of partisan parties and a passionate electorate.

“Like [Andrew] Jackson’s populism, we’re going to build an entirely new political movement,” said Trump strategic adviser Steve Bannon in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter just after last November’s presidential election.

The dangers of invoking Jackson

But invoking Jackson has its dangers. He was a slave owner and racist whose harsh treatment of Native American tribes was controversial even in his time. Trump tweets his anger. Jackson killed a man in a duel who he felt had insulted his wife.

Nor is the Trump/Jackson comparison completely apt. Trump was born to a wealthy family; Jackson pulled himself up by his bootstraps. Trump has never served in the military; Jackson’s rise to fame began as a hero warrior and victor of the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812.

Trump has never served in public office. When Jackson won the White House in 1828, he had already served on the Tennessee Supreme Court and represented his native state in both the US House and Senate. Trump lost the popular vote but won the Electoral College. In his first try for the presidency in 1824, Jackson won the popular vote but did not win an Electoral College majority (the House placed opponent John Quincy Adams in the White House).

Four years later Jackson won 56 percent of the vote and a decisive victory. The crowd at his inauguration, which famously trashed the White House in a victory party, was the largest in US history at that point.

“In truth, [Trump and Jackson] have little in common besides the distrust they have inspired in certain elements of the political elites of their day,” writes historian H.W. Brands, a Jackson biographer, in Politico.

In Jackson’s case that distrust of the elites was elemental. It reflected both his positions and the rapid increase in the number of voters at a time the population and the vote franchise was expanding. The popular vote tripled between his loss in 1824 and his 1828 victory.

Given this increase, Jackson needed a strategy to appeal to lots of voters living a long way from each other. This was a first in American history. In part, he resorted to something today’s chief executive would understand: a media strategy. A voracious reader of newspapers (he subscribed to upwards of 17) he would X out articles he did not like. He personally involved himself in pushing news coverage and counted many editors as political advisers. The press of the day was openly partisan, and after winning the presidency Jackson made sure to establish a pro-Jackson Washington paper.

And he used paintings. He was the first president to employ a full-time artist, who operated in a manner not unlike the White House photographers of today.

Artist in residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Ralph E. W. Earl had made a living painting Jackson for years. He moved into a room in the White House and churned out Jackson portraits as quickly as possible, often painting while affairs of state occurred around him. The established political order worried that Jackson was wild backwoodsman and soldier, so Earl began to focus on portraits that showed the president as dignified, in civilian dress, with the bearing of the Founding Fathers. They were simple, strong images meant to address a political concern, says Professor Stephens of the University of Alabama, who describes herself as America’s only, and thus leading, expert on the artist.

“They were pretty formulaic, and all pretty similar. They were used as political and diplomatic gifts,” she says.

Bits of imagery were meant to evoke the memory of George Washington and other past US heroes. Take the cloak Jackson is wearing in today’s Oval Office portrait. Long, dramatic, and lined with red, it was a favorite of Jackson’s and strengthened the portrait. It’s visible in many Jackson pictures.

Hair was also a large part of Jackson’s persona – as it is with President Trump. It was red and curly when Jackson was younger, but as US chief executive he cultivated a pile of gray hair swept back, giving him the appearance of an elderly lion. The Oval Office portrait is hung so that Jackson, looking to the right, appears to be staring at whomever is behind the Resolute desk Trump uses; when Trump is on the phone or looking up, the comparison is visually striking.

“They both have this big mane that is really coiffed,” says Stephens.

The Oval Office Jackson portrait isn’t all that interesting from an art historian’s viewpoint. The White House only acquired it in 1977. Its provenance for long periods of time is unknown and it is similar to many other Earl paintings.

But that is kind of its point. It was not an object meant to be singular. It was an image meant to be as ubiquitous as possible. That’s why Earl was often called Jackson’s “court painter.”

“He was like a PR guy, spinning,” Stephens says.

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