Ever since FLOTUS Lucy Hayes, it has become a tradition for the sitting First Lady to have a formal portrait painted.
The Delightful Mrs. Coolidge
Grace Goodhue Coolidge (1879-1957) was one of the most personable First Ladies to ever grace the White House. During her time – the 1920s – she was immensely popular, and frequently compared to the other most popular First Lady, Dolley Madison, from a century earlier.
She had been a charmer from earliest girlhood – pretty, stylish, and with a wall-to-wall smile that disarmed everyone. She also had a college education (University of Vermont), where she was a founding member of its Pi Beta Phi Sorority. She remained active in their affairs for the rest of her life.
Her husband was known as “Silent Cal” to his contemporaries. Bland looking – and so average that he could melt into the wallpaper. Anything more than a nod and how-do was like pulling teeth. Grace’s parents never could understand their daughter’s attraction to such a cold clam.
But it was really their well-balanced senses of humor that tied them together. His was Saharan in dryness; hers was teasing and mimicking. It worked. And he loved her. And she knew it.
For the first fifteen years of their marriage, and despite the fact she had been a teacher of the deaf, she was perfectly content to be Mrs. Coolidge, housewife. He was the bread winner, she the bread baker. He was mediocre in the bread winning department, she was equally mediocre in the kitchen.
The Talented Mr. Christy
Ohio born Howard Chandler Christy (1872-1952) was a well known and recognizable American artist, portraitist and illustrator of the early decades of the 20th Century. Following in the popularity of Charles Dana Gibson’s “Gibson Girl” depictions, Christy developed A-listed commissions at an early age. By the time he was 30, his “Christy Girl” images were well known.
He achieved early acclaim during the Spanish-American War, where he was dispatched as a journalist-artist. Portraits and illustration commissions followed from all the major magazines. During World War I, his enlistment posters featured a recognizable style of American womanhood. His work appeared in Harpers, Scribner’s, Century, McClures, etc. The biggies.
By the time he was invited to paint the official portrait of First Lady Grace Coolidge, he was already a superstar.
The Coolidge presidency coincided with what would soon be called the Roaring Twenties. Oddly enough, neither Coolidge embodied the images that were popularized in all the magazines and films and newfangled radio shows. Nevertheless, it was the beginning of “pop culture” as we know it, and all the celebrities of stage, screen, vaudeville, literature and music halls were flocking to the White House to have their photos taken with the POTUS and his Missus who were glad to oblige. Sometime they invited the celebs to lunch – or dinner.
Grace was content as Housewife-in-Chief. She made no public speeches, other than “Thank you for the lovely flowers.” However, it was completely up to her to introduce and maintain table conversation. She read the books of visiting authors; she heard the songs of visiting crooners; she saw the films of visiting movie stars. She was the one who asked the good questions and led interesting discussions. Coolidge, in essence, said “Hello, let’s eat, and goodbye.”
But the public went wild for both of them!
The Lady in Red
In 1923, once the Coolidges were in the White House, the National Council of Phi Beta Pi voted to commission a portrait of their illustrious alum, Grace Goodhue Coolidge, as their gift to the White House. When they contacted Mrs. C., she was delighted, and mentioned that Howard Chandler Christy was staying at the Executive Mansion, and already in the process of painting the POTUS – and FLOTUS. The artist and his subjects appeared to have a good relationship, so an additional portrait of Mrs. Coolidge was commissioned by Pi-Phi. It’s members contributed the $3000 cost. If one looks closely, the sorority’s signature “arrow” pin is worn by Mrs. Coolidge.
Coolidge had always taken a great interest in his wife’s wardrobe (more than she did herself, according to Grace), and wanted her to wear a particular white dress that was his favorite. In fact, the first portrait of Mrs. C. that Christy made featured that white brocade dress.
But the one from Pi-Phi was to be different. Christy spent a great deal of time going through the First Lady’s closet, and decided on a stylish red velvet dress. When the fussy President continued to lobby for the white gown, Christy claimed that the contrast of the blue sky, their white collie, Rob Roy, and the red gown would be a most patriotic portrait.
Coolidge likely knew he would lose that argument, but refused to go quietly. He reportedly suggested that they could still have the same effect if Grace wore the white gown and they dyed the dog.
Christy later commented that “photographs of Mrs. Coolidge seldom do her justice, for she has an alertness that the camera just cannot portray. She radiates energy…. her straightforward gaze, with a sparkle in her hazel eyes…. I have endeavored to retain.” He also painted her with an uncharacteristic serious expression. The story goes that he believed “he once caught a look of resignation in her eyes.”
The artist made his sketches and returned to his studio to work on the full-length, life size portrait considered to be the most popular First Lady portrait in the White House. The china room – where it has been hanging for decades – has been painted exactly the color of that red gown for the best effect!
When portrait was completed, 1300 Pi-Phi sorority members were invited by the Coolidges to attend its unveiling in 1924.
Anthony, Carl Sferrazza –First Ladies 1789-1961, William Morrow,1990
Boller, Paul F., Jr. – Presidential Anecdotes, Oxford University Press, 1981
Foster, Feather Schwartz – Mary Lincoln’s Flannel Pajamas and Other Stories From the First Ladies Closet – Koehler Publishing, 2014
Wikander, Lawrence & Ferrell, Robert (eds) – Grace Coolidge, An Autobiography, 1992, High Plains