Men I Have Painted/Edward Mandell House
IN the summer of 1919, a few weeks before leaving America, I made a hasty trip to Oyster Bay, the once favourite residence of Colonel Roosevelt, to select among the names of a number of men who had become prominent during the war one whom I would be willing to paint for a national portrait gallery.
Several names were mentioned, but when that of "Colonel" House came up, I said, "That will do; I would rather paint him than any man in the country, not excepting the President." As the Colonel was then in Europe, as envoy plenipotentiary to the Peace Congress, and as I expected to be in London and Paris within a few weeks, a letter was sent to him asking him to grant me sittings.
I had not been in London more than three days before a cable message from New York arrived telling me to go to Paris at once, where the sittings had been arranged. Before leaving London a lady, who seemed to know Colonel House, told me I should not like him. For some reason, known only to herself, she made a statement which in the sequel proved to be peculiarly misjudged, for I have rarely met anyone I have liked more.
I must confess that one of my reasons for selecting Colonel House to paint was due to a feeling of curiosity to know him, and, if possible, to discover the secret of his apparent power over President Wilson.
Colonel House was living at the Hôtel Crillon, facing the Place de la Concorde, where many of the American missions were established, with their staffs. The Colonel received me with unusual grace and simplicity of manner, and in a voice of peculiar personal charm assured me of his goodwill towards the project in view. His friendliness was like that of one who had known me for years; all restraint was at once broken down, and although I recognized in him an unlimited reserve of both firmness and sternness, his chief apparent characteristic was an easy naturalness, blended with a manly gentleness, that might have deceived the unwary.
After making two slight sketches in charcoal, I began to paint. When the portrait was partially finished, the light seemed too dull to complete it; so the position was changed to one near the window, where a strong light was reflected from a wall opposite. Choosing the position of reading a book, the head slightly turned down, I painted the eyes raised and looking straight at me.
Colonel House's eyes are remarkable. Looking at him casually, an ordinary observer might see nothing uncommon in their general character or expression; but the quiet intensity of their gaze opens mysterious depths of latent feeling. That Colonel House knew their power is told in the following story: When Lloyd George first called to see him, Colonel House asked him to take a seat with his back to the window and his face in shadow, while the Colonel seated himself in full light opposite the window. As Lloyd George expressed some surprise at this, saying that the usual practice was to put the visitor in the light, where his emotions could be more easily read, Colonel House replied, "I do not need to see my visitors; I want them to see me, as I might have reason for downing them."
When Mrs. House came in one morning to see the portrait, she exclaimed at once, "I do not like it. I have never seen that look on his face." Turning to her, I said apologetically, "I am not painting a husband, but a public man." This did not convince her, although the secretary said afterwards to Colonel House that she knew the look very well and liked it. As no objection was made, I brought another canvas and painted the "husband," with his hat on, which pleased the wife and every one.
Colonel House is a small man, but he told me that he was the tallest of the five heads of the council who met at his house to discuss quietly the subjects of the day before going to Versailles. Here, in a room gaily decorated in bright, flowered damask, sat around a table five small men, representing the combined victorious military and naval power of the world—Clemenceau, Lloyd George, Colonel House, Orlando, and, the smallest of all, but by no means the least, Maréchal Foch.
The description of these gatherings stirred the imagination. In my mind's eye the five small men, the modern Cæsars and Napoleons, rose before me, all save one, the Napoleon of the company, dressed unbecomingly in tweeds and serges that assorted ill with the brocaded chairs—the wise old French statesman, the shrewd Briton, the suave Italian, the sphinx-like American, and the straight-forward soldier. Here was the historic subject of the war. Colonel House realized it even more vividly than I, and temptingly suggested the possibility of obtaining sittings for it. But I heard afterwards that the room had been dismantled by a modiste. A background could have been faked up; but when I thought how each one of these heroes had been beset by interviewers, photographers, and painters and sculptors, in addition perhaps to scissor artists, I concluded that I would not inspire in them a further hatred for the processes of Art.
Colonel House revealed only two things to me—his amiability and his idealism. Almost he persuaded me, by the former quality, to embrace the latter. When he said good-bye, a day or two before he sailed for America, my sympathy for him had been so strongly aroused that I was betrayed, by an emotion that it was impossible to suppress, to wish him success in the high aim which he shared with President Wilson, although my reason forbade me to harbour an illusion which in my heart of hearts I thoroughly disliked. If the races were ready for a universal dominion, there would be no need for it.