January 07, 2014 News & Features » Cover Story


Picture of Politics 

Once the oil hits the canvas, there's no turning back. Or is there? The stories behind the official portraits in the Virginia Governor's Gallery.

click to enlarge Sixteen portraits of Virginia's former governors hang on the third floor of the State Capitol.

Scott Elmquist

Sixteen portraits of Virginia's former governors hang on the third floor of the State Capitol.

When Terry McAuliffe is sworn in as Virginia's 72nd governor Saturday at noon, he'll become a chief executive with no experience as an elected official — a fact his opposition took pleasure in stressing during the campaign.

But like three of his four similarly "inexperienced" predecessors, McAuliffe graduated from a prestigious law school, in his case Georgetown University. Popular governors A. Linwood Holton and Mark Warner were Harvard law grads, while Westmoreland Davis held a Columbia law degree. And like fellow neophyte officeholders Warner, Davis and Henry Carter Stuart, McAuliffe prospered in the business world before his election.

Still, the new governor might find the short stroll from the Capitol's third-floor elevator to his elegant, ceremonial office daunting. Sixteen pairs of eyes will follow McAuliffe, looking out from 16 official gubernatorial portraits. They hang on the balcony just outside his office, surrounding the majestic Rotunda and overlooking Houdon's George Washington's statue.

Arranged in chronological order and running clockwise — the most recent occupant hangs immediately to the right when facing the governor's office — each portrait keeps vigil for 64 years. Then, because of space limitations, the oldest of the bunch disappears into relative oblivion somewhere in the state complex.

When Gov. Bob McDonnell's portrait, painted late last year by Richmonder Nancy Mauck, is hung in the near future, nine of these former governors should still be alive — and in McAuliffe's Rolodex.

In the late-19th century, this third-floor balcony, with its elaborate, classical brackets and entablature supporting a glorious dome, served as the museum annex to the State Library, which also was on this level. All manner of ephemera was displayed willy-nilly. In 1932, Gov. John Garland Pollard freed the space for a portrait gallery of most recent governors. At the same time, on the Capitol's main floor, the Depression-era governor transformed the former House of Delegates chamber into a Valhalla of famous Virginians. He placed special emphasis on Confederate icons, an acknowledgement of the building's role as the Confederate capitol from 1861 to 1865.

Although the Capitol is one of the city's most visited sites, few tourists climb the 48 steps to this portrait gallery. Brochures and guidebooks don't mention it. Instead, visitors are regaled with lore of the Washington statue and busts of the seven other Virginia-born presidents. Gov. Mills E. Godwin Jr., twice elected governor, famously said "there was no higher honor" than serving as Virginia's governor. But these paintings aren't featured on the nickel tour.

As daunting, dour, or maybe even charming — depending on your outlook or political bent — these 16 portraits can be deceptive. Two paintings have signatures by a bogus artist. One governor despised and rejected his portrait and replaced it at his own cost (the state pays for one official portrait). Curiously, the once-banished work has rejoined the select 16. And a few of the paintings — notably James Gilmore and J. Lindsay Almond — are quite good. One is hideously bad.

A visit to the Capitol's third floor, while bemusing, is a revealing snapshot of one way Virginia's governors have long sought to burnish their legacies. Here's who will be keeping an eye on McAuliffe:


click to enlarge LIBRARY OF VIRGINIA
  • Library of Virginia

William Tuck

The portrait of Tuck, one of the most colorful, feisty and lusty governors of the 20th century, will disappear soon when McDonnell's portrait is hung. Among Tuck's unofficial duties was procuring liquor in a dry state for a famous guest at the Executive Mansion, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Tuck's visage will be missed.


  • Library of Virginia

John Battle

The patrician politician from Charlottesville was captured by Irene Higgins, one of only a handful of women who have painted gubernatorial portraits in Virginia. A memorable event after Battle's term occurred at the 1956 National Democratic Convention, when Virginians nominated him for president to save the delegation from having to endorse the more liberal party favorite, Adlai Stevenson.


click image cover_feature1-4.jpg

Thomas B. Stanley

If Stanley's portrait looks photo-realist enough to have been shot with a camera, you might be onto something. If it looks like a candidate for a "Mad Men"-era corporate boardroom, Bingo! Stanley left his father-in-law's business, Bassett Furniture, to start his own successful operation in 1924, Stanley Furniture.

But if you claim to personally know the artist credited with his portrait — a tight, conservative and seated depiction of the handsome businessman turned governor — you'd be telling a fib. Although the lower right corner of the canvas is clearly signed "CJ Fox," there was no such artist at the time with that name. No one questioned that anything was askew until a generation later, and after the same "CJ Fox" painted the portrait of a Stanley successor, Albertis S. Harrison Jr. What gives?


  • Library of Virginia

J. Lindsay Almond

"He watched me like a hawk, he was looking for every change of expression," Almond said of the numerous sittings for artist William Franklin Draper Jr., in a studio at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

The style Draper employed for Almond's portrait is radically different from that of "CJ Fox." Instead of exacting brush strokes, Almond is depicted in a considerably looser and more modern spirit, a reflection of the abstract expressionist movement of the late 1950s and early '60s. The white-maned governor, legs crossed, head tilted and clutching a pipe in one hand, is slightly ruffled.

A conservative Democrat, Almond had moved in 1958 from being attorney general to the governorship during the heat of national school integration battles, but finally recognized that the U.S. Supreme Court ruling had become the law of the land.

It's among the best paintings in the fraternity and was executed by one of the best-known artists represented in the Governor's Gallery. Draper, who died in 2003, was a Massachusetts native who'd seen naval service in World War II. While illustrating aerial attacks, troop landings and invasions, he mastered a fast and energetic sketching technique. The Bronze Star recipient went on to do presidential portraits of John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, and painted Richmond native and tennis pro Arthur Ashe, all of which are in the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian.


  • Library of Virginia

Albertis S. Harrison Jr.

Like Almond, Harrison was a former attorney general. As governor he introduced the state's first sales tax. Harrison was distinguished in bearing and easily could have been sent to the Executive Mansion from central casting: He looked like a governor and evidently admired the corporate, no-nonsense and pleasant-enough Stanley portrait because he also chose "CJ Fox" to portray his official likeness.

Viewing the Stanley and Harrison canvases together, limner portrait painters of colonial era America come to mind: When an artist arrived with body and background already applied onto the canvas — he just filled in the face.

A decade after Harrison left office, and while he served on the Virginia Supreme Court, it was discovered that no artist named "CJ Fox" existed. In 1978, however, a man named Leo Fox testified at a U.S. Tax Court hearing in Miami that apparently it was he who'd visited Richmond on one occasion and New York City on another, to photograph and sketch Harrison. While Leo Fox charged about $2,500 for the job, the portrait actually was painted by Irving Resnikoff, an 81-year-old Russian immigrant living in New York who'd never met any of his scores of subjects. Fox reportedly paid Resnikoff about $250 per portrait.

Harrison told The Richmond Times-Dispatch (in an article headlined "This Fox Had No Brush") that he sat for "sketches by Mr. Fox ... the usual thing. I wasn't paying a whole lot of attention." He also said that as the portrait took final form, his wife inspected it in New York and suggested minor changes.

"Maybe they ought to rub out CJ Fox's name and put Resnikoff's name on it," Harrison quipped. "I'm not going to worry about it."

CJ Fox is still at work. The operation's current website, based in Miami, claims that one of its portraits "captures the likeness and spirit of the subject without the inconvenience of live sittings."


  • Library of Virginia

Mills E. Godwin Jr.
(1966-1970, 1974-1978)

Democrat Godwin is well-remembered for establishing the state's community college system financed by funds from Harrison's sales tax measure.

He selected George V. Augustus of Hampton Falls, N.H., to immortalize him. The artist took a naturalistic approach, similar to Almond's portrait. Godwin is seated, wears a preppy, navy blue and silver striped tie, holds a glasses case and has a slightly concerned expression. The work cost $4,000, with an additional $288 for the frame.

Godwin was elected to a second term as governor four years after his first term and apparently had second thoughts about this portrait. "Suffice it to say," Godwin told a reporter at the time, "Mrs. Godwin and I haven't been overly pleased with it."

  • Library of Virginia

So in September 1977, during the end of his second term, he commissioned and personally paid for a more formal replacement. It was painted by the late David Silvette, an artist who lived on Richmond's North Side and long had been the gold standard for institutional, corporate and society portraits. He usually gave his subjects a distinctive, rosy-cheeked glow. Silvette's work also hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. He had the distinction of painting the only portrait ever done from life of author F. Scott Fitzgerald. Other Silvette works hanging in the Capitol include portraits of former House of Delegates Speaker E. Blackburn Moore and Lt. Govs. Sargeant  Reynolds and Fred Pollard.

It's curious, but unsurprising, that Silvette's work hadn't hung in the Governor's Gallery prior to the Godwin portrait. He once sued the Commonwealth of Virginia when the State Art Commission, which must approve all state-commissioned works of art and architecture, demanded he make changes to one of his paintings. He protested, claiming his freedom of expression was being denied.

For this Godwin portrait however, the commissioners' responses were positive. "Good solid [color] tones" one said, while another welcomed "a strong and handsome addition" to the collection.

Godwin insisted that despite serving two terms, one portrait would hang in the Capitol. This was not to be. The Augustus-painted portrait was banished to storage, but returned to the lineup in 2002.


  • Library of Virginia

Linwood Holton

Holton, a Roanoke lawyer and the first Republican governor of modern times, injected new life into Capitol Square with his wife, Jinx, and their four vivacious children, who were enrolled in the Richmond Public Schools to great fanfare. Holton's administration introduced the Virginia Is for Lovers theme.

Artist C.L. MacNelly, the father of cartoonist and Richmond News Leader Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist, Jeff MacNelly, painted a youthful but intense-looking Holton standing and wearing a strange bluish-green hued suit and a wide, striped necktie (it was the 1970s, after all). The background is in pastel colors. The first portrait to introduce a symbolic prop, Holton holds a volume of "Jefferson and the Rights of Man" by Dumas Malone. The renowned historian and University of Virginia professor attended the portrait unveiling.


  • Library of Virginia

John Dalton

The only brooding and psychologically insightful portrait on the third floor is the standing depiction of Dalton. His gravitas is enhanced by the Republican's dark, heavyset eyes and overall dark brown and earthen tones of the figure and simple background.

Artist John Court, a former Richmonder, considers himself in the painting tradition of James McNeill Whistler and John Singer Sargent. "He is one of the unnumbered minority of contemporary artists intimately familiar with art before Picasso," a former Guggenheim Museum director wrote.

Perhaps Court's ominous approach was prescient. Although he didn't smoke, Dalton died of lung cancer at age 51.


  • Library of Virginia

Charles S. Robb

Like Almond, Robb, the son-in-law of President Lyndon B. Johnson, chose William F. Draper to do his portrait. It could be that Robb, who regularly cites his Marine career as a high point, admired Draper's military service. Both Virginia and American flags flank the governor, who sits with his legs crossed.

Robb sat twice for Draper in his New York studio. Perhaps fees for the well-known Draper were far greater than what the state budgeted, because Robb paid for the work himself. Other Draper commissions included the Shah of Iran and art connoisseur Paul Mellon, which hangs in the National Gallery of Art.

At the portrait unveiling Jan. 10, 1986, Robb quipped, "When you see your portrait draped in black, you know it's over."


  • Library of Virginia

Gerald L. Baliles

Artist Daniel Greene had captured personalities as wide-ranging as Ayn Rand, astronaut Walter Shirra Jr. and painter Raphael Soyer. He showed Baliles seated in his Capitol office with its distinctive dark blue walls and white trim. Of the 16 portraits on the third-floor gallery, this is the only one in which the governor wears glasses.

The work was executed from photos and sittings in the artist's New York studio. Murry DePillars, then dean of the School of the Arts at Virginia Commonwealth University, gave the canvas a final once-over on behalf of the State Art Commission before it was shipped to Richmond.

The work cost $30,000.


  • Library of Virginia

L. Douglas Wilder

This is the worst painting in the Governor's Gallery. It's extremely flat and barely resembles Wilder. It wouldn't make the cut for a bubble gum trading card. In the flesh, Wilder, now a professor at VCU, is vivacious and charismatic. But this painting captures none of that.

There is iconography, however. Painter Jean Pilk included a wooden sculpture from Nigeria, a large seal of Virginia, and shelves of books, including Jansen's tome, "Art through the Ages" that flank the standing governor.

When asked at the painting's unveiling whether it was a good likeness, Wilder turned the question around: "What do you think?"

Wilder added that it would have been nice if his daughter Lynn, an artist, had been given the commission. But, he mused: "My usual friends in the press" would have said he chose "to purloin state funds to my own use."

During the unveiling ceremony of the portrait of the nation's first elected black governor, the Silvette portrait of Mills Godwin began to gradually slip off its hooks before falling to the floor.

Hmmm. Godwin, a product of the segregationist Byrd Machine, once vowed never to be soft on integration.


  • Library of Virginia

George F. Allen

Claiborne Gregory painted Allen's standing portrait, the smallest work in the gallery. The Republican governor stands in front of an impressionistically painted classical column and beside a stack of generic books entitled: "World History," "Economics," "Geometry," "Science" and "Literature."

At the unveiling Allen said that he specifically asked the painter to depict his wedding ring prominently as a tribute to his wife, Susan, and their two children.


  • Library of Virginia

James Gilmore

Gilmore's portrait by Stephen Craighead is the stateliest in the gallery. In the European tradition of court paintings, Gilmore is standing and looks visionary while he peers toward a light source coming from the left (most of the portraits have the governors looking directly at the viewer). But what really sets the painting apart is the use of chiaroscuro, contrasting dramatically light and dark areas. There's no question of his hero: A bust of Jefferson sits on an antique piece of furniture.

It was during the four-year rotation and addition of the Gilmore portrait that a second painting of Mills Godwin was added to the gallery to mark his second term. Virginia's Department of General Services, which oversees the Governor's Gallery, made the call to "correct" the order of things, according to an official.

Ironically, this was the Augustus work that Godwin had banished, reportedly saying he hated it.


  • Library of Virginia

Mark Warner

Like McAuliffe, Warner had no elected experience before becoming governor. But that he's no slouch at politics comes across subtly in his portrait. Artist Bradley Stevens, who attended George Washington University and occasionally played basketball with Warner, depicts his friend standing and appearing slightly impatient with hands on his hips, his suit jacket unbuttoned with a slight "let's get on with it" attitude. Painted in the governor's office, the door is ajar, suggesting future ambitions. Warner became a U.S. senator who seeks re-election in November.


  • Library of Virginia

Timothy Kaine

If Warner is a little restless, fellow Democrat Kaine appears totally at ease in the bright daylight, standing under a tree along a Virginia river bank. He's shed his suit coat. The former Richmond councilman, mayor and chairman of the Democratic National Committee says he "wanted to wear a casual shirt, but Anne prevailed," a reference to his wife, Anne Holton, whose father was Linwood Holton — and who McAuliffe nominated last week as his secretary of education. Kaine serves in the U.S. Senate. The work was painted by Stephen Craighead, the artist of Gilmore's portrait.


  • Michaele White/Governor's Office

Robert McDonnell

If anyone was paying attention to such things when other legacy and legal issues were making news, there might have been some interest in how McDonnell was having his portrait done. This is because a signature project of his wife, Maureen, had been to commission portraits of the 10 living first ladies, beginning with Katherine Godwin.

Who would be McDonnell's artist of choice was all the more interesting when the fruits of the first ladies project were considered to range from bland to awful. "I think I've got the wrong one," Lynda Johnson Robb, wife of Charles S. Robb, not recognizing herself, told another former first lady at the joint unveiling.

Most of the women were depicted in a surprisingly, for the 21st century, girly way — in their inaugural gowns. Only Roxane Gilmore deferred: She's shown in a red suit.

Maureen McDonnell reportedly sent her painting back to the artist at least four times. "When it came back she was 10 pounds lighter and 10 years younger," one state official says.

  • Michaele White/Governor's Office

During the recent holiday season four of the portraits were evident, on easels, at the Executive Mansion. In addition to McDonnell's portrait, those of Katherine Godwin, Lynda Robb and Susan Allen were displayed. The six others have been relegated to cold storage.

As for the governor's official portrait by Richmonder Nancy Mauck, it was unveiled at the Library of Virginia on Dec. 3 (photo above). It is quite nice in a hazy, Hallmark glow way. McDonnell stands on the front porch of the mansion — a salute to its 200th anniversary during his tenure. In the background is a glimpse of the Capitol and beyond that the equestrian statue of Washington.

Those steeped in local lore cringe at the iconography. For a century and a half, wags have said that General Washington, atop his pedestal, is glaring at the lawmakers and pointing directly to the State Penitentiary — once at Belvidere and Spring streets. If McDonnell's staff had been better steeped in knowledge of Capitol Square, they might have suggested a different background.



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