Portrait Miniature of Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams
Portrait of John Quincy Adams
On June 25, 1816, T. B. Johnson, Louisa Adams’s brother, wrote from New Orleans requesting portraits of his sister and brother-in-law for himself. John Quincy Adams had assumed his post as minister to the Court of St. James a year earlier, soon after the conclusion of the Treaty of Ghent (1814). As it happened, Adams had just made the acquaintance of Charles Robert Leslie, “a young American Painter, who lives with Mr. Alston. . . . [He] has a picture of some reputation, at the present exhibition, at Somerset House; and is patronized by the President of the Academy, Mr. West.”1Diary entry of June 11, 1816; cited in Oliver, 57 and n. 1. The combined support of these highly regarded artists, Washington Allston and Benjamin West, was invaluable to Leslie early in his career. Allston’s painting The Dead Man Restored to Life by Touching the Bones of the Prophet Elisha had created a sensation in London in 1814. Benjamin West, formerly historical painter to George III, had by then been president of the Royal Academy of Arts for nearly a quarter of a century. West had been born in Pennsylvania and was always a staunch supporter of American artists; like Allston, Leslie was American, although he would remain in England. These facts, together with the intense nationalism prevailing in the United States after the War of 1812, make Adams’s choice of Leslie to paint these portraits seem inevitable.
Louisa’s sittings commenced on September 5, 1816. When John Quincy saw the portrait in progress on September 14, he thought the likeness “not so good as mine.” Each subject sat some fourteen times until the end of October.2Oliver, 59 and nn. 6, 7. When both pictures were finished, Louisa wrote to Abigail Adams (November 11, 1816): “Our Portraits are most striking likenesses and should they reach America are to be exhibited at Philadelphia.”3Ibid., 62 and n. 8.
The thoroughly Regency style of the painting is striking. The elegant yet casual pose, the poetic aura, the sumptuous textures and colors all bespeak Thomas Lawrence, not Benjamin West. It is impressive that Leslie, who turned twenty-two on October 19, should command this style with such conviction, but he had already given evidence of a precocious talent in his Self-Portrait (1814; National Portrait Gallery, London).4Reproduced in Kloss 1988, 24.
Mrs. Adams, born in London in 1775, seems at home in this very English style. Her mother was an Englishwoman and her father, Joshua Johnson, was an American merchant who was forced to leave England during the American Revolution. Consequently, Louisa Adams spent much of her childhood in Nantes, France. In 1790 Johnson was appointed American consul in London, and it was at the consulate in 1794 that John Quincy Adams, just appointed minister to The Hague, first met Louisa. “Louisa was charming, like a Romney portrait, but among her many charms that of being a New England woman was not one,” her grandson, Henry Adams, was to write. “Try as she might, the Madam could never be Bostonian.”5Adams 1918, 16–17.
Leslie has made much of the contrasts between this couple, even though they are united by their frank, undissembling faces. Mrs. Adams’s sloping pose, the consonant flow of her gown and robe, her relaxed wrist and dangling glove are all placed in expressive contrast to the weighty, forthright presentation of her husband. For Louisa, Leslie reserved the parklike landscape with an elegiac evening sky; for John Quincy, the firmly held book.
Excerpted from Jonathan L. Fairbanks. Becoming a Nation: Americana from the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State. New York: Rizzoli, 2003.