February 19, 1979 12:00 PM

The Civil War is over, Jimmy Carter is in the White House, but regionalism, alas, is not dead. So when a group of Georgia state senators got together to commission a portrait of the President for the state capitol, and the painter chosen turned out to be a Connecticut Yankee named Robert Templeton, local artists could barely contain themselves. “At least to be asked about the portrait—that wouldn’t be so bad,” fumed Atlanta artist Ouida Canaday, “but I’m furious that the senate would treat us like this. If they were building a road, they would get bids. But this was steamrolled right through.” Growled Ben Shute, 73, the dean of Atlanta painters: “This fills me with revulsion. Why don’t we urge everyone to buy their clothes in Paris and their peanuts in Morocco? God, we’ve got a lot of painters in Georgia who are great!”

The Georgians do not question Templeton’s ability, but some were incensed by reports that he worked exclusively in pastels and only from photographs. “I don’t mind what they say,” replies the soft-spoken Templeton, a transplanted lowan who lives and works in Woodbury, Conn., “but they should at least have the facts straight. The portrait is being done in oils, and I’m not doing it from photographs. There were two sittings at the White House.”

Though the President has wisely declined to become embroiled in the dispute, Templeton says he was introduced to the First Family in 1974, when Mrs. Carter commissioned him to do a portrait of Amy. Later he did pastels of both the future President and his wife. “When the President was asked by the Georgia senate committee to choose an artist,” explains Templeton, 49, “he knew that he could be at ease with me, and that he liked what I had done. It’s that simple.”

Last December, says the artist, he went to the White House for a first sitting, shot two rolls of color film for reference purposes and began two preliminary pastel sketches. A few days later the sketches were sent to the President, who picked the one he preferred. Last week Templeton took his unfinished canvas to Washington for presidential approval and a final sitting. “I hate surprises,” he explains. “There are too many stories about artists whose work is greeted with tight smiles, and later they’re collared and told to make changes.”

Born in Red Oak, Iowa, Templeton was inspired to become an artist by Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post covers. He financed his art education with portraits of vacationing farmers and their families in Estes Park, Colo. “Those people were tough, vicious critics, and they taught me what art school couldn’t,” he says. “They insisted I do more than a physical likeness. They wanted to feel the person.”

In his career Templeton has painted thousands of portraits, including one of Hubert Humphrey that is at the National Portrait Gallery (“I had to ask him to stop talking, but when he did, the feeling just died”), and another of Lyndon Johnson. “I’m not a Johnny-come-lately,” says Templeton mildly. “I’ve established myself through hard work. I think I’ve earned my way.”

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