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Eric Altschuler, Ahmed Meleis; What Did the Early United States Presidents Really Look Like?: Gilbert Stuart Portraits as a “Rosetta Stone” to the Pre-Photography Era. Journal of Vision 2010;10(7):687. doi: 10.1167/10.7.687.
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There are no photographs for the first five United States Presidents (George Washington through James Monroe). However, there does exist a photograph of the sixth President John Quincy Adams (1767-1848, President 1825-1829). The fact that President John Quincy Adams straddled the eras of portraiture and photography thus offers the exciting possibility of seeing how faithful portraitists in the pre-photography era were, and, if found faithful, to knowing the true likenesses of the early Presidents and other individuals who were never photographed–a veritable “Rosetta Stone” into the pre-photography era. The great American painter Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828) painted the first six presidents. Stuart's 1818 portrait of Quincy Adams bears a striking resemblance to an 1848 photograph of Quincy Adams, ever more so when we “aged” Stuart's portrait using a freely available program. Similarly, Stuart's portraits of US Senator Daniel Webster and physician John Collins Warren are remarkably faithful to photographs taken years later. However, conversely, we find a likeness of Quincy Adams painted by another well-known American painter, Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827) to be not as faithful to the photograph as Stuart's. Thus, Stuart's portraits can serve as a “Rosetta Stone” to know the images of individuals who lived before photography. In theory one can bootstrap further back in time. This perspective on portraits also gives a way of viewing artists from all eras: Indeed, while Stuart is faithful to his subjects, and his portraits capture critical features of a subject's face, they not nearly as detailed as portraits by Holbein (c. 1497-1543), for example, Holbein's 1527 portrait of Sir Thomas More. This portrait in turn pales in terms of detail in comparison with van Eyck's 1438 portrait of Cardinal Albergati. van Eyck used the same detail in the portrait, e.g., lines, creases, hairs, as he did in all aspects of his other paintings.
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