Critic's Notebook: Presidential Portraits: Staring History in the Face

But it’s possible to approach the same faces, in some cases painted by the same artists, up close, as I did, at the National Portrait Gallery, a short walk from the White House, in a permanent-collection display called “America’s Presidents.”

The initial impression is of uniformity. Our leaders have been white (until 2008), straight (as far as we know) and male. What was diverse about them lay in intangibles: personality, moral compass, I.Q. — all hard to read in a formal portrait. (Ulysses S. Grant looks resolute enough on canvas, but a visitor encountering him during his White House years wrote of his “puzzled pathos, as of a man with a problem before him of which he does not understand the terms.”)

Another impression: These portraits aren’t, for the most part, masterpieces, which doesn’t mean they’re uninteresting….

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