Rosemary Laughlin/Voices | Lectures paint presidents' pictures

Rosemary Laughlin/Voices | Lectures paint presidents' pictures

One of the great pleasures of retirement is to put oneself into the audience of a good lecturer.

Ah! No college/certificate course credit as a goal. No employer requirement for technology training or workplace behavior. Just free choice to learn about an interesting topic.

There are excellent lecture series such as those sponsored by the Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI), churches and libraries, but there are also what I think of as "free-floating singletons." One reads about them in newspaper or newsletter announcements. One may find many of them listed under the appropriate topic category in Thursday's On the Go section of The News-Gazette.

I have recently found myself recounting several.

As part of Black History Month 2019, Parkland offered "The Art of Kehinde Wiley: Painter of President Obama's Official Portrait." Giertz Art Gallery Director Lisa Costello and Art History Instructor Laura O'Donnell gave a 50-minute presentation in the student union to a Parkland art class open to the public.

Most Americans recognize portraits of presidents and first ladies hanging in the White House — most notably that of George Washington rescued by Dolley Madison during the War of 1812.

But few know that there is a National Portrait Gallery as part of the Smithsonian Institution. We were given a quick PowerPoint run-through of all the presidents. Only the ones of the Founding Fathers or on money bills, like Andrew Jackson and Ulysses Grant, were familiar.

Audience exclamations over the recent ones revealed that these were unknown. My word! Bill Clinton's was composed of large dots of color. A grinning George W. Bush sat in a chair, leaning casually forward, wearing an open-neck white shirt with double chest-pockets.

The focus on Kehinde Wiley showed his previous portrait work. By contrast, in the past, only the wealthy or powerful could afford to be subjects. They wanted impressive landscapes, architecture or possessions as backdrop. (Think of "Mona Lisa" or Gainsborough's "Blue Boy").

Wiley favored a broader approach. He took the famous picture of Napoleon on a rearing white horse, "crossing the Alps," with flowing great-cape and raised arm.

Wiley kept the horse and Napoleon's grandiose posture but painted instead an elderly black American in camouflage khakis and Timberland boots. The backdrop was a conventional design pattern we've all seen in many a drapery or rug.

After O'Donnell showed other Wiley portraits of ordinary folks, mostly black, backed by flat, non-dramatic patterns, we got the idea. Anyone is a worthy subject and does not need romantic backing.

We were ready to understand Barack Obama's portrait and why he had chosen Wiley to do it.

The flat backdrop is a mass of green ground ivy. Wearing a dark suit without tie, Obama sits on a slight but decoratively carved wooden armchair. His bronzed skin shines on his face and crossed hands resting on his knees. His gaze is direct, his expression serious.

Two other presidents were the subject of another interesting February lecture at a local retirement residence. Barbara Garvey, director of the Museum of the Grand Prairie, Mahomet, showed the results of her research regarding the relationships of Washington and Lincoln with women during courtship and marriage periods.

Many Illinoisans have heard of Ann Rutledge from New Salem, to whom Lincoln was engaged before she died. There were two others he proposed to, whose pictures Garvey showed with direct quotation sources. Both rejected him. An on-off sequence finally played out to marriage in 1845 with Mary Todd — the best educated, most ambitious and emotionally high-strung.

American biography readers know of Washington's attraction to his neighbor on the Potomac, Sally Fairfax. Garvey also cited sources about a proposal to a lady he met at age 24 while visiting a fellow military officer in New York City. But the wealthy, gracious widow, Martha Dandridge Custis, ultimately became Washington's spouse.

Martha brought him step-children. The boy, Jacky Custis, caused trouble as a young man with wild and spendthrift ways.

The sweet girl Patsy broke their hearts with an early death. Jacky, however, married and had children; when he died, George and Martha raised four with love that was returned.

Garvey reported that since George Washington suffered and survived smallpox, it is speculated that the disease may have caused sterility, a known side effect. He had no biological children.

Whatever, Washington knew the full range of parenting for family and country. A good lecture is a good reminder.

Rosemary Laughlin reviews local theater productions for The News-Gazette. She is a retired English teacher from University High School.

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