November 29: Connecticut’s Presidential Portrait Painter

 

On this day in 1982, a very special delivery was received at the White House: a stunningly photo-realistic portrait of President Jimmy Carter, painted by Connecticut artist Herbert E. Abrams.  The painting was President Carter’s official White House portrait, and after viewing it, White House curator Clement Conger declared Abrams the best contemporary artist he had ever seen.

Herbert E. Adams, self-portrait.

Herbert Abrams grew up in Hartford, Connecticut as one of ten children born to German immigrant parents, and briefly attended art school in Norwich before enrolling in New York City’s Pratt Institute.  After serving in the Army Air Forces during World War II, he returned to New York, where he taught art both in Brooklyn and then at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point for the next few decades.

While Abrams made his living as an instructor, his commercial success as a portrait painter didn’t take off until the early 1960s, when he was asked to paint a portrait of the then-superintendent of West Point, General William C. Westmoreland.  This led to a flurry of commissions for the artist, including several other high-ranking generals and political officials.  Among the famous names he painted were playwright Arthur Miller, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, and three of Connecticut’s governors, including Ella Grasso.

In 1981, when Clement Conger was seeking an artist to paint the official White House portrait for then-former President Jimmy Carter, he was given Abrams’ name by Connecticut state representative Toby Moffett.  On November 29, 1982, Abrams’ finished work was delivered to the White House.  Thirteen years later, his services were rendered to the White House once again, as he was commissioned to paint official portraits of President George H.W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush (whose only regret about her portrait was that Abrams refused to allow her to sit with her beloved dog, Millie, in her lap).

In the midst of his tenure as an art instructor at West Point, Abrams bought a 35-acre farm in Warren, Connecticut, where he built a studio and lived for the rest of his life.  His Warren home became a haven for the artist, who remarked in an interview, “Connecticut is home. It’s always been home. I love the change of seasons, [and] the intimacy of the hills and mountains.”  Abrams passed away in 2003, after a lifetime of painting his way into American history.

Further Reading

Herbert Abrams Immortalizes the Nation’s Leaders,” connecticuthistory.org

Dennis McLellan, “Herbert Abrams, 82; Did Portraits of Dignitaries, Two Presidents,Los Angeles Times

20th Century: Herbert E. Abrams,” American Gallery blog