During his presidency and in his declining years, James Monroe was widely popular, particularly in his native Virginia. At the time of his sitting for this portrait, in June 1829, he was seventy-one years old and also deeply in debt.1Presumed to be the painting in Sully’s list of paintings as published and enlarged upon by Biddle and Fielding, 233, no. 1260: “Head to right, white stock, high coat collar. The register states it was painted for the Military Academy at West Point, owned by Monroe’s great-granddaughter, begun June 12th, 1829, finished June 17th, 1829. Head. Price, $50.00.” This would mean that the head was a sketch for a full-length portrait for West Point. The date of this identification of the Department of State’s head is more convincing than that of the later (1909) inscription on the reverse of the relined canvas “President Monroe 1820.” While Thomas Sully chose to emphasize the graceful image of the public’s perception, he also gave a note of quiet introspection to Monroe’s eyes.
Although for most of his life Monroe looked younger than his age, “he was severely injured in a fall from his horse [in 1828] and his health thereafter was quite poor.” Despite his frailty, wrote an observer at the Virginia Convention in October 1829, “there is a cheerful benevolence about his face most winning in its effect upon those whom he addresses.”2Meschutt, 81 and n. 20.
Perhaps it was this demeanor that confirmed Sully in his decision, habitual in any case, to emphasize Monroe’s suavity over his debility. It is also possible that Sully painted the flattering portrait to accord with Monroe’s appearance as president. Before being mounted, the canvas was relined at least twice. A piece of canvas glued to the back is inscribed “President Monroe 1820 / relined 1909 New York.” The first line, perhaps copied from the original canvas, may have been meant to indicate the artist’s intention to subtract the years, a common practice in portraiture.3A notable example from the same decade is Samuel F. B. Morse’s second portrait of David Curtis DeForest, 1823, at Yale. DeForest desired “to have his portrait taken such as it would have been six or eight years ago.” See Kloss 1988, 81–82. For Monroe’s appearance in 1820, see Morse’s portrait in the White House (Kloss, 1988, 58). It accords well with Sully’s image. There is no record and no reason to believe that Sully painted Monroe in 1820. A second inscription is on the back of the Sully: “The above canvas with inscription formed/ Part of of [sic] the lining of the President Monroe/ Portrait. This was removed when the painting/ Was again relined in 1934. by A. J. Brooks/ 34 South 17th St./ Philadelphia.”
Excerpted from Jonathan L. Fairbanks. Becoming a Nation: Americana from the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State. New York: Rizzoli, 2003.