Friday, April 20, 2018

Sitting Presidents Setting Precedents

"Lansdowne George Washington"
Gilbert Stuart. 1797.
(National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C.)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

One major U.S. publication recently declared that the new portraits of former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama "had cheerfully bucked the trend" of "forgettable" portraits. The newspaper probably could have said much more, but the entire nation was chortling too much to hear anything at all.

Sitting for a portrait can be a daunting thing to face on either side of the easel. I personally love doing portraits, but most folks balk at the nuisance of being artfully recorded for posterity. When the sitter's credentials are huge and their time is minuscule, that annoyance grows exponentially, making the artist uneasy in turn.

Presidential portraits, however, come with the territory. So does sitting for one.

"Theodore Roosevelt"
John Singer Sargent. 1903.
(White House, Washington D.C.)

The current practice is that an official oil portrait is painted after the president leaves office. Typically, they are privately funded, but President Trump recently signed a bill that will keep it that way. While in office, other official portraits – often photographs – may be used, but it’s the later portrait that is most celebrated.

Most of the presidential portraits are anything but “forgettable.” Gilbert Stuart’s full-figure portrait of George Washington set the standard. Not surprisingly, the first president’s visage was wrought in nearly every medium for decades long after his demise. For the nation’s centennial, some pretty silly artistic manifestations popped up that put old George in the demigod category. Forgettable? I don’t think so.

Perhaps President Theodore Roosevelt’s portrait was forgettable. He so hated the first version painted by Théobald Chartran that it was first put in a dark corner of the White House and later destroyed. John Singer Sargent was then commissioned to paint a better portrait. The new artist was smart enough to elicit a bit of presidential rage, thereby capturing the essence of the man. The resulting painting was adored by Roosevelt.
"John F. Kennedy"
Aaron Shikler. 1970.
(White House, Washington D.C.)

Maybe JFK’s portrait was forgettable. It is an unusual portrait, painted in the wake of the president’s death. Not wanting to follow the pattern of previous Kennedy portraits, his widow stipulated that the official portrait be something different and not show his penetrating eyes. The pose is one of deep introspection, and mirrored the psyche of a mourning nation. Maybe that’s what they meant by “forgettable.”

Barack Obama’s portrait, by Kehinde Wiley, is a bit of a let-down, considering Wiley’s other portraiture. A random assortment of symbolic flowers sprout behind the sitting president amid a wall of ivy. So many parodies have flooded the Internet that it’s laughable. Any portraitist called upon by the nation’s highest office should anticipate such nonsense if he is worth his salt.

Michelle Obama’s portrait, by Amy Sherald, is far worse. One can label it “cutting edge” until the cows come home, but it will always stink of high school in its annoyingly-unbalanced composition, uninspiring color scheme, and questionable likeness. [My sincere apologies to high school artists. And smelly lockers.]

Perhaps a whole White House full of presidential portraits isn’t enough to inspire everyone. Perhaps well-founded conventions portraying the dignity and character of the office isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Maybe it’s time to update the Oval Office with a bit of orange shag. If, however, you think the likes of Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald will in any way ever outshine the talents of Gilbert Stuart or Rembrandt Peal or John Singer Sargent, just forget it.

"Barack Obama" [left] by Kehinde Wiley. 2018, and "Michelle Obama" [right] by Amy Sherald. 2018.
(National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C.)

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