Late last year, James Monroe Museum director Scott Harris came across a portrait of a man bearing a striking resemblance to the nation’s fifth president.
Painted about 1820—roughly halfway through his two-term presidency that was called the “Era of Good Feelings”—the man had the same hairline, Monroe’s iconic mole under the right eye, his cleft chin and even wore the same black suit the president sported for each portrait sitting.
And the slight suggestion of a smile upon the man’s lips was consistent with other paintings of Monroe, whose warm nature and easy-going personality was remarked upon by visitors to the White House during his time there.
Now, the previously unknown portrait of Monroe has been authenticated, and will be unveiled at the museum Saturday at a free event from 1–3 p.m. in commemoration of Monroe’s 257 birthday.
The celebration will also include cake, punch, 18th-century music and family-friendly activities.
Harris described Monroe as a popular chief executive who was re-elected with only one dissenting Electoral College vote.
His most famous legacy is the Monroe Doctrine, a statement opposing European intervention in the affairs of the Western Hemisphere that was a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy for much of the 19th and 20th centuries.
The portrait was sold at an auction in New Jersey in 2013 as a “portrait of a stately gentleman,” not identified as Monroe.
It was purchased by Michael Meyer, owner of Meyer Fine Art in Yonkers, N.Y., along with an unsigned portrait of a woman in the same lot.
Meyer recognized the subject as Monroe.
He brought both portraits to the James Monroe Museum late in 2014.
The museum staff consulted a variety of experts to confirm the identities of the two subjects, and whether they were works of Monroe’s era or products of a later time.
Among those were former directors and curators of the museum, two local antiques dealers and curators at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Jamestown–Yorktown Foundation.
The paintings were also analyzed by curatorial and conservation staff of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
The consensus was that both paintings are from the early 19th century. The man depicted in the image was confirmed to be James Monroe.
The museum then purchased the Monroe portrait from Meyer Fine Art for $16,000 in March, using private funds administered by the University of Mary Washington Foundation.
To offset this expenditure the museum is seeking institutional and individual donors.
James Monroe sat for portraits by Samuel F.B. Morse, Gilbert Stuart and Charles Willson Peale.
Peale’s son, Rembrandt, painted two portraits of Monroe that are in the museum’s collection.
The whereabouts of several portraits of Monroe known to have been painted during his lifetime are unknown.
Harris isn’t sure whether the portrait is one of those, or a wholly unaccounted for piece, leaving detective work still to be done.
He has some leads, knowing that noted portraitist Bass Otis once painted the president.
And Sarah Miriam Peale, niece of Charles Willson Peale and one of the first commercially successful female artists in the U.S., was present at the White House during Monroe’s presidency and may have painted him.
He said the painting, which is not stylized but rather more frank and straightforward than other portraits, leaves other mysteries.
The clothing isn’t as detailed as the face, which leaves Harris and his staff wondering if it was completed.
Judging by hair color, this portrait appears to capture Monroe sometime during his presidential term. A portrait painted early in his presidency shows him with darker hair, while his hair is nearly white in one from the end of his term.
“It shows how the office of the presidency ages the person holding it,” Harris said.
Finding a portrait like it, “is like finding a needle in a haystack,” Harris said.
“In a career of working in museums, you don’t often get a chance to see something so special,” he said. “This job is like time travel, an artifact can take you to another time and place.”