Inside the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery – Washington, DC’s temple to portraiture – hangs the likenesses of America’s greatest citizens. It may come as no surprise that General Marshall’s portrait is among them. Walking through the 20th Century Americans exhibition, visitors are met with the faces of Generals Dwight D. Eisenhower and George S. Patton, Admiral Chester Nimitz, and Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer before staring into the steel blue eyes of General George C. Marshall.
Seated in uniform, Marshall’s portrait shows him as a five-star general, at rest between his numerous duties. This rare oil painting of the humble public servant is one of less than three works painted from a live sitting. It was said that Marshall was not the easiest sitter as he was not interested in himself or his image.
The artist, Thomas Edgar Stephens (1884-1966), came to Marshall as a friend of Eisenhower’s asking to paint the then-secretary of state in 1947. Born in Cardiff Wales, Stephens studied at the Art School of Cardiff University and at the Académie Julian in Paris. Upon arriving in the United States in 1929, Stephens’s first work was a portrait of Abraham Lincoln. Throughout his career, sitters included Douglas MacArthur, Fred M. Vinson, Harry Truman, and the Duke of Windsor.
When Stephens approached Marshall about a portrait, the general resisted at first, feeling he was not an appropriate subject. Both Stephens and Eisenhower were adamant of Marshall’s participation in the work; Marshall finally agreed to sit. Although Marshall relinquished his active-duty status as secretary of state, Stephens chose to portray Marshall as a soldier. Ironically, Marshall is seated in an armchair from his Pentagon office where he served as a civilian secretary of state.
The viewer may notice that, despite Marshall’s five-star rank, his “fruit salad” of medals is quite small. In an act that is “characteristically Marshall,” despite receiving many foreign decorations, he did not deem it necessary to wear many. In fact, only four of the ribbons depicted are foreign awards and one ribbon is a foreign order.
Stephens quickly learned his subject put little emotional energy into being a sitter. After the artist had seduced Marshall to sit for him in the Pentagon, Secretary Marshall’s desk was cluttered. When the phone rang, Marshall always answered. In the middle of a session, Marshall stood up and walked out, not returning. Stephens later discovered that Marshall had something pressing to attend to – a task mattered more to him than being in a painting. Ultimately, the painting was finished in 1949.
After its completion, the work was acquired by the philanthropist Paul Mellon. His daughter, Ailsa Mellon Bruce, donated the work to the National Gallery of Art in 1951. In 1956, a celebration for the 10th anniversary of the Marshall Plan found Marshall photographed in front of his own likeness. Six years later, the National Portrait Gallery opened and soon became the permanent home for General Marshall’s portrait, where it is still displayed today.
Cody Youngblood is a graduate student and docent at George C. Marshall’s Dodona Manor in Leesburg, Virginia. Follow his adventures @young_preservationist.