"Welcome to my hanging."

There's a scandal going on in Washington, and, for once, it's got something to do with art! When George W. Bush unveiled his White House portrait recently, the President's painted likeness was just the latest in a string of overpriced official portraits.

A few months ago, the Washington Post published an article about government spending on official portraits. Both sides--those in favor of the traditional painted portraits and those against them--provide interesting arguments, but I think they're all missing the point. It's isn't the expense* that's the problem: it's the distressing lack of value for the money.

By some unspoken rule, official portraits of public servants are all done in a vaguely Renaissance-y manner.** Portraiture was instituted (though not invented) in that period, and the genre has had a hard time shaking the basics of that style. The look of official portraits involves mostly somber-ish or brown-ish tones as well as formal attire and poses, resulting in a deadened caricature of real Reneaissance portraiture. Everything in this so-called "timeless" portrait manner is geared toward giving the viewer the impression of a long and venerable tradition. The references to times gone by are meant to make the sitter seem more important.

Gilbert Stuarts' President George Washington (Lansdowne Portrait) 1796
Simmie Knox's President Bill Clinton 2004
Rembrandt Peale's President Thomas Jefferson 1800

The portraits come in full or three-quarter length and, less often, as a bust or showing the subject seated. Popular poses include a hand on a hip, the fingers of one hand pressed on table, or a hand holding what one supposes must be an important document.

Aaron Shikler's posthumous portrait President John F. Kennedy 1970

Of the 43 Presidents the United States has had to date, Kennedy is the only one to have his White House portrait painted with his gaze not directed at the viewer or at the horizon. Even before I knew the subject had been assassinated, I loved this Presidential portrait specifically because it was so different from the others. It breaks the monotony of the Commander-In-Chief series and always made me want to know more about Kennedy.

George Healy's President Abraham Lincoln 1869

This is the other Presidential portrait that stands out for me. Lincoln is seated but still very engaged--in a way that wouldn't be possible if he were shown standing. In this attitude, he seems somehow informal: he's not so much presiding over us as he is interacting with us. The portrait reads like a pensive moment during a conversation.

Anders Leonard Zorn's President William Taft 1911
J. Anthony Wills' President Dwight Eisenhower 1967
Everett Raymond Kinstler's President Ronald Reagan 1991

That isn't usually the case with seated portraits of Presidents. Taft is just one of many sitting Presidents who seems a little aloof--almost enthroned.
Eisenhower manages to look engaged while sitting, but not with the same vigor as Lincoln. The arm of the chair is doubtless a nod to 17th century Dutch portraiture which often showed the subject turning all the way around in his chair, resting his arm on the back and looking out at the audience. It's a trick which lends the portrait a certain dynamism and brings to the painting the lightness of a moment without seeming too snapshot-like.
Unfortunately, Reagan's portrait falls short of the vitality-not-frozen-time goal. Like the portrait of Bush below, Reagan's likeness is smiling a little awkwardly and the composition cuts the sitter in strange places (Reagan's left hand is lopped partway off as are Bush's feet), leaving this viewer a little unsettled.

Robert Anderson's President George W. Bush 2008

Bush's White House portrait seems to want to break the Presidential portrait traditions. The painting eschews the usual formality, showing Bush tieless and seated legs open with barely half a cheek resting on a couch. Even the background seems unstudied and haphazard, the line of the table cutting through the President's head and the vase almost fighting for prominence with the sitter's face.

I have to believe that the President's Yale classmate who painted this portrait was trying to shake Presidential portrait traditions and that's why he painted the portrait the way he did. There's no other acceptable reason.

When I see a $160,000 portrait that looks like this, I am tempted to agree--at least partly--with David Bjelajac, a professor of art history at George Washington University who was interviewed for the Washington Post article I mentioned above. Bjelajac explained that "portraitists must subordinate their artistic vision to the wishes of the subject. For that reason, top-flight artists normally are not interested in accepting such commissions."
Unlike Bjelajac though, I might place the blame instead on those responsible for choosing the official portraitists--or, in other words, those who want to commission artists whose visions they can subordinate. If only officials could bear to be a bit more individual, they might not find the need to sit for the tradition-factories that are the portraitists who belong to this kind of club.

At the unveiling of Bush's White House portrait two and half weeks ago at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, the President addressed the audience, joking "I suspected there would be a good-size crowd once the word got out about my hanging." While that says a lot about Bush's Presidency and how we all--including the W. himself--understand it, I think it says at least as much about official portraiture. Sitting for another traditional portrait which will only bore future generations is a bit like murdering your legacy.


*Especially in the case of President Bush's portrait since it was paid for by donations and not by taxpayers' money like some other official portraits.
**The only exception to this rule that I know of is Henk Pander's 1982 portrait of Oregon Governor Tom McCall, a fascinating example of modern portraiture which hangs in the Capitol Building in Salem.


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