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Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt 1858–1919

After the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901, Vice President Theodore Roosevelt swiftly stepped into the role of commander in chief. While U.S. legislators and colonial administrators established overseas rule, Roosevelt and his administration furthered the gains of the War of 1898. They secured U.S. oversight of Cuban affairs in 1901 and declared the end to the Philippine-American War in 1902. Positioning the United States at the nexus of global trade and influence, Roosevelt’s administration took on the construction of the Panama Canal. 

Early in 1903, John Singer Sargent traveled from Boston to paint Roosevelt’s official portrait. The president’s impatience frustrated Sargent. In one posing session, Sargent found the perfect composition by chance, as an irritable Roosevelt turned around to him on a flight of stairs while complaining about the artist’s indecisiveness. Sargent’s depiction of a towering Roosevelt, gripping the stair’s newel-post, conveys the president’s commanding, alert, and resolute personality

John Singer Sargent (1856–1925)
Oil on canvas
White House Collection
Audio file
Taína Caragol, Curator of Painting, Sculpture and Latino Art and History at the National Portrait Gallery

Audio Transcription: When I see this painting of President Theodore Roosevelt, my eyes focus immediately on that hand and that sphere at the end of the banister. And because art historians have a bank of images in their heads, I think back to the Western art tradition of using the sphere as a representation of power. That is a tradition that goes back to antiquity. In fact, in
Rome, during the reign of Caesar Augustus, there were coins that represented him with his foot on a sphere to allude to his imperial power. And by the time that John Singer Sargent paints this painting, the sphere is also a very prominent image in U.S. visual culture and that is represented in magazines of the time, with the image of the bald eagle, with its wings spread over a sphere that encompasses the continental United States and the territories. And so even if I cannot tell for sure whether Sargent wanted to align himself with that tradition, it is still possible to look at
the image within its context of production and see in it a metaphor for that process of expansion. I also find it interesting to look at this portrait in relation to the portrait of President William McKinley by Francisco Oller that starts our exhibition. Oller represents McKinley with a map of Puerto Rico in his hand, to make reference to how the United States has just fought in the War of 1898 against Spain, and claimed Puerto Rico as one of its new territories. So if you look at McKinley with the map in his hand, and you look at Roosevelt with the hand on the globe, you have a sort of step-by-step process of how the United States became a world power through the acquisition of territories.

– My name is Taína Caragol and I'm curator of painting, sculpture and Latino art and history at
the National Portrait Gallery, and I'm a co-curator of this exhibition.