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10/13/2015

The President's Face Presidential portrait exhibit

On September 22, 2015, Mississippi State University Libraries held a ribbon cutting and reception for the opening of a new exhibit at the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library, "The President's Face." This exhibition at the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library focuses on the evolution of portraits of the President from the time of Lincoln through the time of Garfield, in particular, looking at how photography changed the appearance of formal portraits.

Photography provided a method to capture a likeness with additional spontaneity and veracity, and allowed a way to present a truthful image even after the person had died. Painted portraits were valued to convey nuanced meaning when painting the President's face, however, to summon the power of the Office, and the essence of the person beyond physical appearance. 

Enthusiastic about photography, Abraham Lincoln repeatedly sat for portraits with Alexander Gardner. Painter Henry Ulke acquired photographs of Lincoln directly from Gardner to paint the deceased President's portrait for an 1869 competition. Although he never completed that painting, the portrait pose in Gardner's photographs directly informed Ulke's 1875 portrait of President Grant. Ulke photographed and painted Grant, emphasizing the dignified appearance of the new President with subtle reference to the past, closely examining the man, and the change from General to President.

Ulke Family Collection materials are exhibited for the first time since their discovery after the death of the painter's granddaughter in 2009. The additional portrait of Grant from the Small Collection, and materials from the Bultema-Williams Collection, in addition to the family photographs of Grant on loan from a New York Private Collection, complement these loans, providing exceptional opportunity to view material that remains in private collections today.

Events began with a program in the John Grisham Room, including an introduction of Olga Weiss and Mimi Peters, owners of the collection, and descendants of Henry Ulke. The ribbon cutting took place outside of the Grant Presidential Library's exhibit room, and a reception followed.

John Marszalek, executive director and managing editor of the U.S. Grant Library and U.S. Grant Association, said exhibits like "The President's Face" provide a unique educational experience to MSU students, faculty and staff and to library visitors.

"We think this exhibit is exciting," Marszalek said. "It's an important collection because it talks about a very important man from this era (late 1800s) that the average person on the street may not know about."