A Collector’s Art: The Portraiture of James Pruett

By Mike McLeod
Posted June 2016

Many talented artists paint portraits of famous people. However, James Pruett went a step further. He not only painted portraits of 51 famous people—eight Presidents of the United States, one U.S. Vice President, a German Chancellor, a First Lady of China, three governors, two senators, actors, sports pros, a New York City mayor—he also sent his work to those famous people for their autographs…and he included a felt-tipped pen for the signing. J. Edgar Hoover autographed his portrait and actually returned the pen. Was he really that honest, or did he know that the pen would also be collectible after he touched it?

James Pruett

Norman Rockwell

Two people did not sign their portraits: Maria von Trapp and Norman Rockwell. Maria didn’t approve of her likeness. To be fair, James painted it later in life when his eyesight was deteriorating. Norman Rockwell explained that if he signed it, people might assume it was a self-portrait, which was actually a compliment to James’ work. But Rockwell was kind enough to include his autograph on a separate piece of canvas, which James displayed with the portrait.

James actually met Norman Rockwell in person to request the signature. He also asked Rockwell to autograph a white plastic bag he had from the Rockwell Gallery and Gift Shop. Not only did he sign it, but he also drew the figure of a dog on the bag—a Norman Rockwell original.

James Pruett was born in 1908 in the tiny town of Smithville, Ga., between Macon and Albany. From 1941 until his retirement in 1973, he was the CEO of Capital Trailways Bus System and Colonial Trailways in Montgomery, Ala. He was greatly involved in civic affairs, including serving as the President of the Montgomery Chamber of Commerce and the founder of the South Alabama Fair.

James secured the signature of President Lyndon Johnson on his portrait in a roundabout way. As CEO of Capital Trailways, he was a friend of the president of Continental Trailways in Dallas, who knew LBJ and had no problem getting the autograph. LBJ signed the painting and sent it back to James right away. Not long thereafter, the local newspaper in Montgomery carried a story of how President Johnson had rejected the official White House portrait…but not James Pruett’s. The paper did not report—and probably did not know—that the signing of James’ portrait of LBJ had a little political oomph behind it.

Mickey Mantle

President Eisenhower

Another of James’ presidential portraits also needed some extra help to get an autograph. President Dwight D. Eisenhower rarely signed likenesses of himself because he equated that with Hollywood and movie stars, which he disliked. To get his signature, James approached a next-door neighbor, Red Blount. Winton “Red” Blount was US Postmaster General during Richard Nixon’s presidency, and he was also Ike’s southeastern campaign manager during his run for the presidency. Red took the portrait to Washington, D.C., and personally asked former President Dwight D. Eisenhower to sign it. This portrait with its hard-to-get signature is perhaps the most valuable in the collection. Another valuable signed portrait is of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin (the first men on the moon) and Michael Collins (who stayed in orbit).

James Pruett began drawing in 1927. His talent expanded from sketching to portraiture, and his favorite style of painting was monochrome, using different shades of the same color. His collection of celebrities is a Who’s Who from decades of American history. A partial list of notables in his collection includes:

Ronald Reagan
Harry S. Truman
Dwight D. Eisenhower
Lyndon B. Johnson
Richard M. Nixon
Gerald Ford
Jimmy Carter
George H.W. Bush
Mickey Mantle
Jack Nicklaus
John Glenn
Sally Ride
Frank Borman
James Lovell
Bob Hope
Jack Benny
Johnny Carson
Red Skelton
Jimmy Durante
Guy Lombardo
Billy Graham
Paul Harvey
Walter Cronkite
Chet Huntley, David Brinkley
Jessica Savitch
Mayling Soong (Madame Chiang Kai-shek), China’s First Lady
Willie Brandt, Chancellor of West Germany
Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State
Robert Kennedy, US Attorney General
New York City Mayor John Lindsay
John Mitchell, US Attorney General
Winton M. Blount, US Postmaster General

James was so dead set on getting his paintings autographed that he once went to prison for one. Again going to his friend Red Blount, James asked him to get former US Attorney General John Mitchell to sign his portrait. At the time, Mitchell was serving time in the minimum security prison at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery for his part in Watergate. Blount responded he would do it—and he invited James to go along. There, in the prison, John Mitchell autographed his portrait.*

James Pruett passed away in 1992. His collection has passed into the possession of his sons Kirby and Jim Pruett, and the brothers are looking for a new home for it. The collection has been displayed at the Montgomery County Historical Society, and now, a few of James’ portraits are here for you to enjoy.


* Lest John Mitchell be remembered unfairly here, it should be known that he served three years in the Navy in WWII and was a PT boat commander. After passing away in 1988, in his eulogy it was “…pointed out that near the Mitchell grave in Arlington [National Cemetery] was the headstone of Col. Gregory (Pappy) Boyington [of the Black Sheep Squadron], a Medal of Honor winner who used to call John Mitchell every year to thank him for saving his life. [Mitchell] never spoke of his war record; such modesty is rare in politics, but exploitation of his naval service would have been out of character.” From NYT.com, “ESSAY; Watch What We Do,” by William Safire, Nov. 14, 1988. 




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