Life-size paintings at Booth Museum depict 44 American presidents

More recently, Rossin added a second canvas, of equal size, with full-sized portraits of all the 19th century presidents, plus George Washington and John Adams. (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
More recently, Rossin added a second canvas, of equal size, with full-sized portraits of all the 19th century presidents, plus George Washington and John Adams. (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta J

Credit: Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta J

Atlanta portrait artist Ross Rossin will update his painting soon.

A monumental set of three paintings of 44 American presidents hangs at the capacious Booth Museum of Western Art in Cartersville, awaiting the latest addition.

Portraitist Ross Rossin of Atlanta has been working on the triptych for 15 years, putting all the presidents from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries on three 13-by-20-foot canvases. But he’s not done yet.

A new president will be added this spring, after the inauguration. Unlike most monuments, this work will be updated every election season.

It is all part of a project that Rossin began as a labor of love, one that will see him to the end of his life. After that, he said, he has plans for someone else to take over.

“It was just something he had to do,” said Seth Hopkins, the Booth’s executive director. Hopkins said Rossin’s enthusiasm for the American story is the kind of love that you might only find in an immigrant’s heart, in Rossin’s case, an immigrant from Bulgaria.

“He speaks so passionately about this country, and so much of what we hear is so divisive, it’s a breath of fresh air to hear someone talk positively," said Hopkins.

Ross Rossin researched images of past presidents to complete his monumental paintings. For the earliest presidents, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, Rossin studied life masks and the sculptures of Jean-Antoine Houdon, who had been invited to sculpt busts of American political leaders by Benjamin Franklin.  (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Ross Rossin researched images of past presidents to complete his monumental paintings. For the earliest presidents, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, Rossin studied life masks and the sculptures of Jean-Antoine Houdon, who had been invited to sculpt busts of American political leaders by Benjamin Franklin. (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta J

Credit: Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta J

Seated in the sky-lit studio at his art-filled north Atlanta home, Rossin, 56, recently described his quest to put all 44 presidents together in one room. At his feet was a bust of famed football coach Vince Dooley; on the walls were miniature versions of his paintings of Morgan Freeman, Hank Aaron, Maya Angelou and Andrew Young that hang in the Smithsonian’s portrait gallery. They shared space with gargantuan paintings of Native American faces, people he encountered on a recent trip through the Four Corners of the American West.

“I’m still in awe of this country’s history," said Rossin, a vigorous, compact figure with a shock of graying hair. “You don’t have tyrants; you don’t have military leaders; you don’t have kings and queens.”

Though he generally works by commission, Rossin had no buyer in mind when he began work on the 20th-century presidents canvas back in 2004.

He couldn’t fit the work in his studio, so he borrowed space in a gymnasium at the Westminster School, where his children were students. On the canvas, the life-sized figures are arranged in two rows, with the more contemporary presidents standing behind their seated predecessors.

Rossin brought the finished painting to the Booth Museum, which includes a permanent exhibit of presidential portraits, many of them Yousuf Karsh’s black and white photographs. The museum couldn’t afford to buy the painting, said Hopkins, but did agree to display it, and to mention to visitors that it was for sale.

Seated among the 20th-century presidents, an intense Teddy Roosevelt leans forward from his chair while a garrulous Bill Clinton waves an arm as if to say “welcome to the party!” A slightly aloof Jimmy Carter stands at the left, his arms crossed over his chest.

One of those visitors was entrepreneur Harry Patterson, owner of seven car dealerships in Wichita Falls, Texas, and environs.

“I was mesmerized,” said Patterson. Hopkins introduced it as a “love letter to America.”

Atlanta portrait artist Ross Rossin created this monumental 13-by-20-foot painting of all 18 presidents from the 20th century to satisfy an urge to celebrate American history. (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Atlanta portrait artist Ross Rossin created this monumental 13-by-20-foot painting of all 18 presidents from the 20th century to satisfy an urge to celebrate American history. (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta J

Credit: Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta J

When Patterson inquired about buying the presidents, Rossin offered an unusual deal: he would throw in another painting of equal size that included all the 19th-century presidents, plus those 18th-century forebears, George Washington and John Adams.

Rossin painted the 19th-century presidents “in situ,” at the Booth Museum. Visitors had a chance to watch him at work. “We had a sign that said ‘Don’t Feed The Artist,’” said Hopkins.

Unlike the warm tones and the collegial atmosphere of the 20th-century canvas, the 19th-century canvas is cool and formal.

But it offers revelations. James Madison’s modest stature (he was 5′4″) and Martin Van Buren’s creaky appearance (though he was only 55 when elected) are among the surprises inherent in gazing at these portraits, along with John Adams’ Beethoven-like hair.

Years after completing the painting of the 20th century presidents, Rossin added this equally monumental canvas, creating life-sized portraits of all the 19th century presidents, plus George Washington and John Adams. Rossin worked on this 13-by-20-foot painting "in situ," in a gallery at the Booth Western Art Museum, as visitors watched his progress. (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Years after completing the painting of the 20th century presidents, Rossin added this equally monumental canvas, creating life-sized portraits of all the 19th century presidents, plus George Washington and John Adams. Rossin worked on this 13-by-20-foot painting "in situ," in a gallery at the Booth Western Art Museum, as visitors watched his progress. (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta J

Credit: Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta J

There is also the delightful sense of the leaders interacting with each other.

Thomas Jefferson stands with his right arm resting on George Washington’s back, as if to introduce him to the viewer. (Hopkins said Washington didn’t like being touched, and the pose is a bit of a way to needle our country’s father.)

Rather than add the 21st-century presidents to the 20th-century canvas, Rossin developed a novel solution. He started a third canvas of the same size, with former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and President Donald Trump at the center, and room for 12 to 14 more presidents to be added when the time comes.

Ghostly silhouettes suggest the placement of subsequent additions, including at least one feminine silhouette.

After the inauguration Rossin will update this canvas, which is devoted to the presidents of the 21st century. Somewhere down the road he hopes to find a successor who will complete this task, adding the presidents from the second half of the century after he's gone. (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
After the inauguration Rossin will update this canvas, which is devoted to the presidents of the 21st century. Somewhere down the road he hopes to find a successor who will complete this task, adding the presidents from the second half of the century after he's gone. (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta J

Credit: Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta J

The paintings will stay at the Booth Museum through the end of 2021, and then will move to Texas, where Patterson said he’ll find a place to display them, perhaps in a new museum devoted to patriotism.

Patterson donated land for the Angel Fire Veterans Cemetery near his home and is on the board of the National Veterans Wellness and Healing Center, also in Angel Fire. He would like to use the paintings to generate interest in helping that center.

“You’re talking to a Vietnam veteran who is also a PTS survivor,” said Patterson recently. “You noticed I drop the ‘D,’ cause we don’t think it’s a disorder.”

Patterson was inspired by Rossin’s creation. Then Hopkins helped inspire Rossin in return.

In the spring of 2019, the two took a nine-day driving trip through the American West, including Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming and Nevada.

Rossin’s mystical experiences in New Mexico, painting models and landscapes in “plein-air” outings (painting while outside), brought about a radical shift in his style. In the new paintings, his strict photorealist portraits are interrupted by abstract swoops and bands of color.

A show featuring a batch of these paintings — Hopkins calls the technique “quintessential realism” — is planned for the Booth next spring. The paintings combine “the abstract and the real,” said Rossin.

“Santa Fe helped me go farther," said Rossin. "Over there, you can’t draw a line between creativity and magic.”

EXHIBIT

Booth Western Art Museum

501 North Museum Drive, Cartersville. 770-387-1300, boothmuseum.org.

In Other News