A look inside the Hoosier history enshrined in Indiana’s gubernatorial portraits

The tradition of capturing Indiana’s governors on canvas dates back to 1869 and continues today

By: - September 8, 2022 6:30 am

The official portrait of former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels hangs in the governor’s office in the Indiana Statehouse. Portraits of three other past governors — Frank O’Bannon, Robert Orr and Otis Bowen — hang in the office, too. (Casey Smith/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

Frank O’Bannon is sitting at his desk. Harold Handley sports a bowtie. The dome atop the Indiana Statehouse peeks behind Edgar Whitcomb. 

How Indiana’s executive leaders are depicted in their gubernatorial portraits is largely up to them. It’s a tradition that dates back to 1869, when then Gov. Conrad Baker began collecting pictures of the 17 Hoosier governors who preceded him. 

The collection of paintings has since come to capture every governor in Indiana history — including those from when the state was just a territory — except acting Gov. John Gibson, who served for four months in 1800 while awaiting the arrival of territorial Gov. William Henry Harrison.

The portraits “immortalize” Indiana’s top leaders and “honor them for the work they’ve done,” said Mark Ruschman, chief curator of fine arts at the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites, which coordinates the collection. But they’re also “excellent” windows into the past — providing a glimpse at the personalities, expressions and even the fashion preferences of former Hoosier governors.

“When you’re the governor, this is your place in Indiana history,” Ruschman said. “It occupies a place of reverence and notoriety. There’s a whole storyline, a whole narrative that goes along with being included in the governor’s portrait collection.”

A rich history of Hoosier politics and artistry 

The story of the collection began when the Indiana Legislature authorized Baker “to secure, as soon as practicable, a true and life-like likeness of each of the Governors of the State and Territory of Indiana, including the present incumbent,” as long as he kept costs below $200. 

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Baker got to work seeking out past Hoosier governors who were still alive and could sit for new portraits. He also searched for the families of former governors to collect photos and paintings — intended to aid six local artists tasked with creating official portraits for all the prior governors of Indiana.

Since then, each Indiana governor has posed for a portrait while still in office or soon after their tenure.

In 1916, during Indiana’s centennial celebration, then Gov. Samuel Ralston sought renowned Indiana painter T. C. Steele to paint additional portraits of four governors who belonged to “epochal” periods of the state’s history: William Henry Harrison, the first territorial governor; Jonathan Jennings, the first state governor; Oliver Perry Morton, governor during the Civil War; and Thomas A. Hendricks, a popular politician and notable governor during the Reconstruction era.

The Indiana Governors’ Portrait collection now contains 54 paintings. Most are on public display in the statehouse, around state offices in Indianapolis and in the Indiana State Museum.

How the painting comes together

Selecting an artist and commissioning a gubernatorial portrait lasts about a year, Ruschman said.

The process begins with a public call for artists online, which Indiana State Museum staff coins as a “Call for Qualifications.” The selected artist must be a resident or native of Indiana, or a graduate of an Indiana institution of higher education. 

Typically, 50 to 60 applications are submitted for consideration, Ruschman said. Those are narrowed down to a dozen by a special selection committee, usually composed of a representative from the governor’s office, a member of the Indiana Arts Commission, a staff member from the Indiana State Museum, and a handful of other Hoosier art professionals.

Ruschman said the committee wants to see artists’ qualifications and prior work, rather than sketches of what they envision for the governor’s painting. Once three to five artists are identified, it’s up to the governor and first lady to make the final decision.

Official portrait of former Indiana Gov. Conrad Baker, painted by James Forbes.

“With the criteria that we have, we want to bring that personal connection,” Ruschman said. “In theory, you could have a professional photographer take photographs of the governor and send them off to some portrait studio in New York or even Chicago. But we want it to be a personal experience for the governor, and for the end result to reflect Indiana artists.”

Oil on canvas or linen is the standard medium for the portraits, Ruschman said. All of the pieces in the collection are oil portraits (except for one pastel of Gov. James Mount). 

Some governors also have specific requests — a family portrait in the background, certain books, symbols that represent things that are important to them.

Although portrait painters can better capture that “personality and characteristic” through live sittings, during which a governor is present in front of the artist, Ruschman said logistics don’t always make it possible.

He pointed to the gubernatorial portrait of former Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, the last to enter the state’s collection. Unveiled in 2017, the painting, completed by Indianapolis portrait artist Mark Dillman, depicts a smiling Pence sitting on his desk surrounded by law books, a family portrait and a Bible. The artist also painted the portrait of Joseph Kernan, Indiana’s 48th governor.

Pence was already vice president — and short on time — when Dillman and Ruschman traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet the former Indiana governor and his wife at their residence to take photographs. Dillman later used those as a guide to his painting. 

The artist said his finished portrait intends to show Pence’s personality as governor — as a “man of the people,” showing a love of faith, family and tradition. 

Ruschman said the experience was different for artist Richard Halstead, who was previously commissioned for former Gov. Mitch Daniels’ portrait. The two spent time together before painting began. Halstead’s final product depicts a “more casual,” minimalistic Daniels, Ruschman said.

“He wanted to be a sense of a man that’s working for the people. That’s why there’s no suit jacket. He has a pen in his hand. And those were his requests,” Ruschman said. “The artist had a much more personal experience with Daniels, and they were on the same page with what he wanted.”

Caring for — and displaying — the portraits

A portrait typically takes three to four months to complete. After that, a public ceremony is traditionally held to publicly unveil the painting.

Curators at the state museum oversee the portraits from there. Most are circulated through various state offices once or twice or year, allowing time for each piece to “rest” while periodically in storage and away from public exposure. Each sitting governor is additionally allowed to select which portraits to have on display in the governor’s office at the statehouse.

Current Gov. Eric Holcomb chose Oliver P. Morton, Thomas Marshall and several others. The portrait of former Democratic Gov. Joe Kernan sits directly above his desk. 

“We keep a close eye on everything we have for possible deterioration or the need for conservation,” Ruschman said. “We make sure they’re all still in good condition and cleaned as needed. It’s just general good stewardship.”

It will still be a few years before Holcomb is slated to sit for his own gubernatorial portrait. The Republican governor hasn’t hinted at what themes he might want enshrined. (An homage to Hoosier athletics? Or maybe a Henry Holcomb cameo, giving Indiana’s First Dog another first as the inaugural pet to be featured in a governor’s painting?) 

Ruschman said museum staff will start putting plans together in early 2024. 

“There are some prevailing rumors,” Ruschman said about symbols that could be included in an impending portrait of Holcomb. “But who knows, still. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”


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Casey Smith
Casey Smith

A lifelong Hoosier, Casey Smith previously reported on the Indiana Legislature for The Associated Press. Internationally, she has reported on water quality across South America. She holds a master’s degree in investigative reporting and narrative science writing from the University of California/Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. She previously earned degrees in journalism, anthropology and Spanish from Ball State University, where she now serves as an instructor of journalism.