Painting, Portrait of James Monroe (1758-1831)

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  • Artist: John Vanderlyn
  • Washington, DC
  • 1816
  • Oil on Canvas
  • 1946-80

With his traveling expenses partly underwritten by the American Academy of Art, John Vanderlyn made the second of his trips to France, reaching Paris in 1803. There he met James Monroe, then acting as president James Madison's special envoy to France; artist and diplomat became fast friends, remaining so until Monroe's death.

Back in America in 1816, president James Madison and president-elect James Monroe ordered portraits of one another from Vanderlyn. When the artist executed this dual commission, he also made several copies of his portrait of Monroe. Monroe himself possessed one of the likenesses, and today, that version is owned by the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D. C. Which was the original painting taken from life, and which were the copies?

Some scholars believe the original to have been Colonial Williamsburg's version, partly because it is documented as having been owned by Madison. That is, after Madison's death in 1836 and his wife Dolley's in 1849, the portrait they had owned was included in the auction of Dolley Madison's estate, which a contemporary Washington newspaper described as including "an original portrait of James Monore by Vanderlyn." At the sale, the painting was acquired by Judge Edward B. Coles, Madison's private secretary from 1809 until 1815. The painting then descended within the Coles famly until 1945, when it was placed with a dealer and purchased by Colonial Williamsburg.

The portrait's restrained coloring and brushwork attest to the enduring influence exerted on Vanderlyn by French neoclassicism. The severe style likely also appealed to Monroe, whose acknowledged pro-French tastes were honed by several missions to Paris.

Vanderlyn was an adept artist but an indifferent money manager, often borrowing from friends and sometimes embarking on imprudent ventures in attempts to keep his pecuniary affairs afloat. In 1818 in Virginia, Vanderlyn contracted with John Crawley of Norfolk and James Warrell of Richmond to show some of his pictures in those cities. He realized a modest income from the former exhibition, but the latter was a total financial loss. The Richmond display included one of Vanderlyn's portaits of Monroe, though probably not Colonial Williamsburg's version, which likely was claimed by the president immediately after its completion.

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