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The Presidential Portrait That Was the “Ugliest Thing” LBJ Ever Saw

Every U.S. president eventually has a portrait hanging in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. Last Monday, President Obama's portrait was unveiled. At the ceremonies for these unveilings, the subject of the portrait normally has praise for the artist's talent, often accompanied by a self-deprecating joke about their own appearance. That was not the case when Lyndon Johnson's portrait was made public in 1967.   

When he first laid eyes on the painting that was to be his official White House portrait, Lyndon B. Johnson disgustedly called painter Peter Hurd’s work “the ugliest thing I ever saw” and refused to accept it. Hurd was already decades into his successful career as a painter, specializing in portraiture and landscapes of the American Southwest. Arrogant enough to be unaffected by the comment and eager to publicize the president’s “very damn rude” behavior, he readily responded to press curiosity about the incident. Americans were sympathetic toward the scorned artist and increasingly skeptical of the president’s character—a slight that Johnson, who was already seen as short-tempered, could hardly afford. After displaying the piece at a Texas museum in retaliation, Hurd later donated his painting to the Portrait Gallery, which agreed to not display it until after Johnson’s death.

Johnson did not elaborate on what made the portrait "ugly." Hurd's portrait was a very good likeness of the former president, and if anything, it made him look less mean than he was. Plenty of folks speculated as to why Johnson reacted the way he did, which you can read about in an article at Smithsonian that looks into Johnson's way of thinking.


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