Painting the First Lady

Painting the First Lady

“I finished the portrait in seven sittings of two hours each. Mrs. Cleveland posed like a professional model. It was found by most to be a strong resemblance . . . ”
Helena deKay Gilder seated at First Lady's right
Richard Gilder and Frances Folsom Cleveland flank the great stone studio hearth with Helena deKay Gilder seated at First Lady's right
Grover and Frances Cleveland
President Grover Cleveland, First Lady Frances Folsom Cleveland

For all the attention and notoriety that Tommaso Juglaris garnered for his nude painting of Mlle. Yvonne, he was also appreciated as an artist capable of more chaste work. Indeed, Juglaris’s reputation was sufficient to attract the notice of New York City-based artist and culture maven Helena deKay Gilder, a founder of both the Art Students’s League and the Society of American Artists, as well as the sister of the New York Times art critic Charles deKay. Yet Helena deKay Gilder’s influence didn’t stop there. She was also the wife of the noted and politically astute Scribner’s editor Richard Gilder. In turn, along with her husband, Mrs. Gilder was a close personal friend of U.S. President Grover Cleveland and his wife. Ultimately, the well-networked Helena deKay Gilder--with the likely encouragement of her husband--recruited Juglaris to paint Frances Folsom Cleveland’s portrait.

Grover Cleveland was the only American president to serve two non-consecutive terms in office, 1885-1889 and 1893-1896. He wed Frances Folsom in the Blue Room of the White House in June 1886. The marriage was slightly controversial because of an age difference and president’s previous role as a close, longstanding family friend. While Grover Cleveland was already 49, Frances was merely 21 years of age, making her the youngest First Lady in U.S. history—a record she still retains.

Triptych of Frances Cleveland
Portraits of Frances Folsom Cleveland;
Oil portrait, artist unknown
Oval pendant, Fernard Paillet (1891)
Oil portrait, Anders Zorn (1899)

A fresh face, appealing widely to the women of her day, Frances Cleveland was the object of considerable newspaper and magazine attention. She became a much-photographed fashion icon. Hundreds of photos of Frances Cleveland survive. Without permission, her image was also exploited for commercial advertising—a cause of pique for both the President and First Lady. In the face of all this, the Gilders, particularly Richard, were eager to see Frances Cleveland immortalized in a finer way. As Annette Dunlap, Frances Cleveland’s biographer, has noted, Richard Gilder wrote the First Lady on June 29, 1887. In his letter, Gilder encouraged Frances Cleveland to have a more suitable portrait done. He then goes on to propose that the “American-European” painter John Singer Sargent be solicited for such a commission or, alternatively, Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

Saint-Gaudens sketching Frances Cleveland
Frances Folsom Cleveland modeling for sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens,
Marion, Massachusetts, 1887

With second thought, Richard Gilder is particularly fulsome in recommending Saint-Gaudens, whom he knew personally. Saint-Gaudens, Gilder explains, “is one of the best [sculptors] now living. Besides his public work—The Farragut in New York—the forthcoming Col. Shaw in Boston and Lincoln in Chicago, etc., he has made some most exquisite [smaller] portraits in the style I speak of.” At the same time Gilder speculates that in lieu of a sculpted work, Saint-Gaudens might also be willing to paint a more conventional oil portrait. It would likely necessitate “sittings during two weeks in Washington or wherever you prefer.” In fact, soon afterwards Richard Gilder’s letter, Helena deKay Gilder arranged for Augustus Saint-Gaudens to begin a medallion bas relief portrait of the First Lady. As recorded in a vintage photograph, Frances Cleveland sat for the sculptor’s necessary sketches in Helena deKay Gilder’s Marion, Massachusetts studio near Cape Cod. But it was another five years before Saint-Gaudens actually completed a seventeen-inch plaster portrait and ten years more (1902) until he finally cast a five-inch bas relief in bronze. Meanwhile, in winter or spring 1890 Helena deKay Gilder went ahead on behalf of the Clevelands and secured the services of Juglaris for an oil portrait.

At the time, the Clevelands were temporarily out of the White House, living in New York City, as they awaited a successful reelection bid. But they began to summer close to the Gilders in Marion, Massachusetts where the president was able to take advantage of the Atlantic seacoast to enjoy his favorite pastime of fishing. Before purchasing a large house of their own on Buzzard’s Bay known as “Gray Gables,” Grover and Frances rented a “cottage” where they twice cordially entertained Juglaris at lunch when he came to Marion for the First Lady’s portrait sittings.

Sketch of artist unknown
A Young First Lady:
Sketch, artist unknown

Like Augustus Saint-Gaudens three years earlier, Juglaris made use of Helena deKay’s Gilder’s studio “in the woods” to sketch and paint the First Lady. He devoted two weeks to a couple of preliminary drawings of Frances Cleveland and then returned to complete her portrait. “I finished the portrait,” he explains in his memoirs, “in seven sittings of two hours each. Mrs. Cleveland posed like a professional model.” According to Juglaris, it “was found by most to be a strong resemblance and I was paid 500 dollars”—a handsome sum approaching $13,000 by present-day accounting. Juglaris was thoroughly charmed by his young subject whom he quaintly but respectfully addressed in his memoir as the “lovely Mrs. President.” An expansive Grover Cleveland, who favored immigration, prophesized that Juglaris had a brilliant future ahead of him in America.

Subsequently, a couple of other artists were called upon to execute portraits of Frances Cleveland. In 1891 the New York socialite Peter Marie commissioned the French miniaturist Fernard Paillet to paint a locket-size portrait of Frances Cleveland for his personal collection of Gilded Age beauties. Likewise, in 1899 on a grander scale favoring an Art Nouveau style, Swedish painter Anders Leonard Zorn unveiled the former First Lady on canvas in a white sleeveless, strapless gown, tres decollete. Now part of the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., Zorn’s work has come to be the best-known of all renderings. Nevertheless, Juglaris can still to be credited with Mrs. Cleveland’s first commissioned oil portrait.

Unfortunately, neither the location nor fate of Juglaris’s portrait and preliminary drawings of Frances Cleveland are presently known. However, like the muses of the Michigan State Capitol which were “buried” in plain sight and long attributed to another artist, or other Juglaris works which have surfaced from unsuspected places, sometimes deep storage, both the portrait and drawings of the First Lady may yet reappear.