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The Famous Little Portraitist

One Friday afternoon early in the tenure of Governor John Carlin as Archivist of the United States, I heard a voice in the outer office asking, “is anyone here?”

The executive wing of the National Archives Building in Washington, DC was christened “Mahogany Row” many years ago and is a distinguished looking space with 14-ft ceilings, enormous oak doors, beautiful wainscoting, and intricate crown molding. Multiple offices line the left side of the dimly lit marble hallway and there is an inner corridor that gives convenient office-to-office access without going back into the hall. The inner corridor doors were open that day and the voice seemed to be coming from the reception office of the Archivist.

I got up from my desk and walked down the inner corridor. As I stepped into the reception area, there stood a rather slight gentleman with a dramatic shock of white hair. He had a pleasant smile and was wearing a rumpled tan raincoat.

He introduced himself as Joseph Maniscalco.

Born in Tampa, Florida, the son of Michelangelo Maniscalco, Joseph and his family moved to New York City when he was nine. He always told the tale that when he was fifteen, he found a one-dollar bill on the floor at Macy's art material department, which enabled him to purchase his first set of oil paints. He went on to receive his training in art as a scholarship student at the famous Art Students League in New York City.

His abilities as a portrait artist were recognized by Twentieth Century Fox Studios where he painted portraits of movie stars for their posters. In 1953 he moved to Detroit, Michigan, where he worked as a freelance artist for many of the largest studios. Since 1968 he had maintained a studio at the Scarab Club of Detroit.

So why was this famous little artist standing in the Office of the Archivist?

Well, as Mr. Maniscalco quickly explained, he had been the portraitist who had painted a commissioned portrait of Dr. Robert “Bob” Warner, sixth Archivist of the United States. He was visiting Washington and always stopped by to see us for one, and only one purpose.

Beginning with the first Archivist, R.D.W. Connor of Wilson, NC, each Archivist has had a commissioned portrait painted or in recent years, photographed. In the early years these paintings were displayed in the Archivist’s Reception Room and now hang in the marble stairwell leading from the ground floor to the mezzanine level of the Archives. An impressive display, they remind the visitor of the almost ninety-year history of the National Archives of the United States.

Bob Warner was our modern Archives hero. His quiet campaign to free the agency from bondage under the General Services Administration (GSA), claimed victory on October 19, 1984, when President Ronald Reagan signed legislation that removed the National Archives from GSA and renamed us the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

On November 8, 1984, Ed Meese, Counselor to the President, presented a facsimile of the “Independence Act” to Bob in the Rotunda of the National Archives Building. I was in attendance and remember it as a wonderful moment for the Agency.

In his book, Diary of a Dream: A History of the National Archives Independence Movement, 1980-1985, Dr. Warner describes that day, as:

one of the very best days of my life. . . Music filled the Rotunda of the National Archives. The usual quiet, almost reverent atmosphere of the splendid classical building which houses our nation's most treasured documents was joyously shattered by the singing of 'To Dream the Impossible Dream.'...An impossible dream had come true, an impossible hope was fulfilled. An impossible fight had been won. And we were celebrating.”

Presidential archivist and long-time friend Richard “Dick” Jacobs was the soloist that day. A gifted tenor and Catholic cantor, Dick was our go-to singer for such Archives events. He didn’t disappoint on that occasion and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

So, what was Joseph Maniscalco’s one and only one purpose that day?

“One of my favorite portraits on display in this town doesn’t hang in the National Portrait Gallery, the National Gallery of Art, or the U.S. Capitol. It hangs in the Office of the Archivist of the United States, and I always like to pay it a visit when I’m in town. Could you do me the honor of seeing it today?”

Given the fact that I was the only one who responded to Mr. Maniscalco’s calls for assistance, I assumed that I was “home alone” on that end of the hall. But to be sure, I excused myself and ducked around the corner to see if Governor Carlin was in his office. He was not, so I invited the portraitist to follow me in.

Hanging on the wall behind the desk of the Archivist of the United States is a near-life sized portrait of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt painted in 1935 by Henry Salem Hubbell. It is on a long-term loan from the FDR Library and reminds us of Roosevelt’s role as the true “father” of the National Archives, having signed our establishing act in 1934 and hired the first Archivist of the United States. Hubbell was an American impressionist who had studied under James Whistler. He was known in France for his figural works and returned to the United States to take up many renowned portrait commissions.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1935 Henry Salem Hubbell, self portrait

Joseph Maniscalco, still donning the rumpled raincoat, followed me into the office and stopped in front of the Archivist’s desk. He squared his shoulders and gazed up at the FDR portrait for several minutes, in silent awe. He was clearly having a very personal experience, so I said nothing.

He thanked me, and gave a slight bow, but when he turned to leave, he stopped cold in his tracks. He had apparently noticed three landscapes that occupied the opposite wall of John Carlin’s office.

Though he never told me, I think Governor Carlin hung these paintings to balance the political atmosphere of the room. They were the work of amateur artist Dwight D. Eisenhower. As a son of Kansas, John shared the hero worship of his home state for the General and two-term president, but unfortunately, Ike’s accomplishments on the battlefield and the White House were not matched by his skills on the canvas.

Maniscalco asked me, “who painted these?”

When I answered, he simply replied, “Dreadful” as he walked out the door.


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