George Washington Carver
Betsey Graves Reneau
Oil on canvas, 1942
National Portrait Gallery,
transfer from the National Museum of American Art,
gift of the George Washington Carver Memorial Committee
to the Smithsonian Institution, 1944
Scientist and Saint. Whose clear vision perceived in simple plants materials he transformed into products useful for nourishment and beauty. Always proclaiming kindly goodwill, generously giving the results of his patient research; saying his skill came from the constant inspiration of almighty God, who showed him the secrets of the loveliness of creation.
-William Jay Schieffelin
Born into slavery at the end of the Civil War, George Washington Carver overcame the dual obstacles of slender means and racial discrimination to become the director of agricultural teaching and research at Alabama's Tuskegee Institute. His laboratory investigations there led to the discovery of more than 450 new commercial products■ranging from margarine to library paste■that could be made from the peanut, the sweet potato, and various other cultivated plants. In the process, Carver demonstrated for many southern farmers the wisdom of diversifying crops, instead of their soil-exhausting practice of relying mainly on cotton, and he himself became known as the "miracle worker."
Carver accepted a multitude of honors in the course of his career, but he consistently balked when artists sought to commemorate his accomplishments with a portrait. However, he so admired Betsy Graves Reyneau's likeness of Edward Lee that in 1942 he consented to pose for her. It reveals him in the midst of his favorite hobby, the cross-pollination of a hybrid amaryllis that he had developed.