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Object Details

Maker
Charles Robert Leslie (British, American, 1794-1859)
Date
1816
Geography
United Kingdom: England
Culture
British
Medium
oil on canvas
Dimensions
Overall: 37 in x 29 in; 93.98 cm x 73.66 cm
Provenance
The portraits descended to Thomas Baker Johnson, brother of Louisa Catherine Adams; to Charles Francis Adams (d. 1886), the son of John Quincy Adams, in 1836; probably to his son, Charles Francis Adams (d. 1915); to his brother, Brooks Adams (d. 1927), by 1921; to his niece, Mrs. Robert Homans; to her son, Robert Homans, Jr.
Inscriptions
None
Credit Line
Gift of Robert Homans, Jr., Lucy Aldrich Homans, and Abigail Homans, in memory of their father, Robert Homans
Collection
The Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C.
Accession Number
RR-1975.0038

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Object Essay

Among the multitude of characterizations of Adams, this portrait is striking for the serenity the artist captured in America’s then-Minister to Great Britain (1815–17).  On September 11, 1816, only four days after Leslie began work on the painting, Mrs. Adams wrote to her mother-in-law, Abigail, “Mr. A. tells me his picture is likely to prove an excellent likeness at which I am much delighted as I think he never looked so well or so handsome as he does now.”  He was generous in granting Leslie some fourteen sittings through October 31, and the young artist made the most of the opportunities.1Oliver, 59.

A sense of physical and mental well-being pervades the figure.  Nearly frontal, the substantial block of his body and head is drawn and modeled to convey strength of purpose and intellect. In its air of good humor and candor untinged with irony or asperity, it is rare among portraits of Adams.  Mrs. Adams was moved to write a poem in praise of the artist’s success, in which she singles out precisely these qualities:

On the Portrait of my Husband
The Painter’s art would vainly seize
That harmony of nature,
Where Sense and sweetness joined with ease
Shine forth in evr’y feature.
That open front where wisdom sits
That Eye which speaks the soul
That brow which study gently knits
That soft attemper’d whole–
That vast variety of Mind
Capacious, clear, and strong
Where brilliancy of wit refin’d
Enchants the list’ning throng
That sense of right by God impres’t
That virtuous holy love
Of excellence whats’ere is best
Imparted from above
These Painter if thou canst impart
Shall fame immortal raise
And e’en the greatest in thy Art
Shall carol forth thy praise.2Ibid., 62.

Adams holds a book, his forefinger marking his place, while his other fingers draw our attention to the design embossed on its binding—Adams’s seal, just received from a London engraver.  Leslie at first “did not incline to” Adams’s request to include the seal, and it is somewhat oddly placed on the back cover of the quarto volume.  The seal had deep significance for Adams.  This is its first appearance.3Oliver, 58 and n. 4. It combines an eagle and a lyre, and it bears a Latin motto, NUNC SIDERA DUCIT, which may be rendered “it now leads the stars,” an extremely erudite reference.  Adams elucidated the motto in his diary entry for September 7, 1816, the very day of his first sitting to Leslie.  It reads, in part:

. . .Orpheus is said to have charmed Lions and Tygers, . . .by the harmony of his Lyre. . . The meaning of this Allegory is explained by Horace. . . .Orpheus was a Legislator whose eloquence charmed the rude and savage men of his age to associate together in the State of civil Society. . . .It was the Lyre of Orpheus that civilized Savage Man.  It was only in Harmony that the first human political institutions could be founded.  After the Death of Orpheus, his Lyre was placed among the Constellations, and there, according to the Astronomics of Manilius, still possesses its original charm. .  .It is the Application of this Fable, and of this passage of Manilius, to the United States, the American political Constellation, that forms the device of the Seal. The modern Astronomers have connected a Vulture with the Constellation of the Lyre. . . .Instead of that bird, . . .I have assumed the American Eagle as the bearer of the Lyre.  The thirteen original Stars form a border round the Seal. . . .The motto from Manilius is upon the Lyre itself. The moral application of the emblem is, that the same power of harmony which originally produced the institutions of civil government. . .now presides in the federal association of the American States.  That Harmony is the Soul of their combination.  That their force consists in their Union; and that while thus United, it will be their destiny to revolve in harmony with the whole world by the attractive influence of their Union.  It is the Lyre of Orpheus that now leads the Stars [emphasis added]. . . .The Lesson of the emblem is Union.4Ibid., 8–9.

This extraordinary exegesis, together with his demeanor in the portrait, suggests Adams’s pride in representing America in London at this moment of resurgent nationalism following the successful conclusion of the War of 1812.  In 1829, he wrote that “the Seal which you will find upon this Letter is a pythagorean Emblem of my whole political System.”5Oliver, 11.

The portraits of Adams and his wife (See Acc. No. 75.39) were sent to America in late February 1817.6Ibid., 62–63 and nn. 9–10. The portraits descended to Thomas Baker Johnson, brother of Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams; to Charles Francis Adams (d. 1886), the son of John Quincy Adams, in 1836; probably to his son, Charles Francis Adams (d. 1915); to his brother, Brooks Adams (d. 1927), by 1921; to his niece, Mrs. Robert Homans; to her son, Robert Homans, Jr. The subjects soon followed them, for in the summer John Quincy Adams returned to become Secretary of State (1817–25) in the administration of President James Monroe.

William Kloss

Excerpted from Jonathan L. Fairbanks. Becoming a Nation: Americana from the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State. New York: Rizzoli, 2003.