From the sour expression of Reuben Chapman (governor from 1847-49) to the annoyed smirk of Clement Comer Clay (1835-37) — his thin finger clasped between the pages of a favorite book — few, if any, of these former governors appear to have had much fun.
At least until George C. Wallace, who is grinning ear-to-ear in his official portrait.
Now former Gov. Bob Riley has joined the ranks of politicians enshrined in oil paint.
Painted by Birmingham artist Mark Carder, who also painted the portrait of former President George W. Bush, Riley’s portrait was unveiled last week.
Dressed in a dark suit, red power tie and the familiar Alabama lapel pin, Riley’s portrait tells the story of leader known for his optimism. He, too, dared to smile.
Riley’s portrait will hang in the rotunda of the Capitol Building in Montgomery, sharing wall space alongside former governor Don Siegelman. Two spaces in the rotunda are reserved for the two most recent governors to have left office.
Portraits of other former governors hang throughout the Capitol Building.
Though Riley’s portrait will eventually be taken down and hung somewhere else within the Capitol, there are two portraits that will never be removed from the rotunda – those of arguably Alabama’s most iconic political figures: George and Lurleen Wallace.
“My understanding, and I read the resolution years ago, is that there was an act of the legislature, passed sometime in the ‘70s, that said the portraits of the two governors Wallace would hang in the rotunda in perpetuity,” said Ed Bridges, director of the Alabama Department of Archives and History.
The governors and their props
There’s more to some of these portraits than meets the eye.
The governors choose the artists, and decide how they would like to be depicted in their portraits. For example, Siegelman’s selection process was done with the help of the Alabama Arts Council. Siegelman eventually chose Simmie Knox, a highly regarded African-American portrait artist.
“Gov. Siegelman’s portrait is certainly unique,” Bridges said. “I think he was consciously working with the arts council to find an artist who would be focused on the artistry of his work.”
Some former governors had to rely on the kindness of others.
“Gov. Hunt, because of his conviction, left office almost immediately after the sentence was announced, vacating the office,” Bridges said. “So there was no way for him to come up with funds for a portrait. Gov. Folsom very kindly provided some of his contingency money to cover the cost of the portrait.”
Sometimes, it’s what’s in the portrait that counts. A few former governors have opted to include props to illustrate either a part of their personality or an accomplishment of their administration. For example, Siegelman has a model car on his desk, reminding people that he helped lure the Honda plant to Alabama.
“Traditionally, Alabama governors have been painted without any symbolic props,” said Christine Carl, Alabama Historical Commission site director for the Alabama State Capitol. “Governor George Wallace began the tradition by adding symbols such as the Bible, a telephone, an open door, and a miniature Statue of Liberty.”
Some props are simply coincidental. For example, in Chauncey Sparks’ portrait, it appears as if the 41st governor was simply interrupted while reading the newspaper.
But no matter what rests in their hands or on their desks, the portraits are meant to represent a moment in time
By the time these governors have reached their final months in office, they have become aware of the legacy they’re leaving behind. When these portraits are unveiled, often friends, former cabinet members and staffers of the old administration get together and reflect over their time in office.
“There’s usually a sense of relief that all these great issues are over with, but there’s also sadness that – given all the good times and camaraderie – they’re no longer together,” Bridges said. “And usually a real sense of pride.
“I know with Bob Riley’s unveiling, there was a tremendous feeling that they’d had a great term and done a lot to redirect Alabama politics.”
Contact Brett Buckner at email@example.com.
To view the portraits and biographies of Alabama 52 former governors, visit www.archives.state.al.us/govslist.html.
Siegelman had a model car included in his portrait, to remind viewers that he helped lure the Honda plant to Alabama.
George C. Wallace
Wallace easily has the busiest portrait, with a Bible, a miniature Statue of Liberty, Alabama and U.S. flags, a phone and what looks like a microphone.
Is that a tree stump that James is holding? “What I’ve been told is that it’s a sapling meant to signify the grassroots campaign and his representation of ordinary people,” said Ed Bridges, director of the Alabama Department of Archives and History. “I can’t say I fully understand it … otherwise, it’s an excellent portrait.”
The artist initially failed to paint Hunt’s wedding ring. After the portrait was unveiled, the artist had to come back and add a ring on Hunt’s finger, “because Gov. Hunt wanted, in a way, to have his wife recognized,” said Ed Bridges of the Alabama Department of Archives and History. “She died not very long after that.”