As a member of the National Council on the Arts (2003–2009), I had the privilege of hosting the White House National Medal of the Arts ceremonies. We enjoyed hors d’oeuvres and apple cider made by the White House chefs while we mingled in the rather narrow corridors and rooms of the White House where many of the famed presidential portraits hung proud. It was quite the experience to see such an expansive overview of these portraits done by some of the best portrait artists throughout history.
What is notable, and obviously so, is that after the 1950s, the art of the portraiture declines in quality. Eisenhower’s portrait by James Anthony Wills notably departs from the conventional and begins to capture visual details with a photo-realistic eye. Yet it seems markedly flat compared to Anders Zorn’s rather elegant portrait of William Taft. After Eisenhower, aside from the exceptional portrait of Jackie Onassis by Aaron Shikler, portraits begin to flatten even further, looking more like a caricature than a portrait.
Combining all of the Presidential portraits—including those collected in the National Portrait Gallery—the progression (or regression) is clear from the remarkable portraits of George Washington (like Gilbert Stuart’s “Lansdowne portrait”) to the new portrait of Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley. The recent surge of interest and controversy following its release gives us an opportunity to reconsider what the art of portraiture does, and why we have lost it.
The Overlap of Medium and Message
In the War of 1812, as the White House was burned down by British forces, Dolley Madison notedly carried the portrait of George Washington (by Gilbert Stuart) into the Virginia woods. The original, after being purchased back from Marquess of Lansdowne, now hangs in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, and an exceptional copy (with an intentional misspelling of some of the titles of the books) in the White House.
During one of my visits, I walked about the corridors and began to lament the lack of power in the recent portraits. Full of shallow layers, they are flat, “digital” portraits that do not seem to be paintings as much as photo-collages—the depth and power of the medium of paint wanes with every portrait. Assuming that the original Stuart still hung in the White House, I asked myself, “Which presidential portrait would I have saved?”
Marshall McLuhan famously said, “The medium is the message.” The art of portraiture depends upon the medium of paint. Traditionally, oil paint was developed primarily for painting skin tones—they have wide varieties of subtle brown and ochre tones that create a far more nuanced range than what is available in acrylics today.
John Singer Sargent, probably the greatest portrait artist of twentieth-century America, captures so much in a gesture of a single, fluid stroke because of the paint’s viscosity. He attains the potential that only the medium of oil paint gives, while at the same time paring down the message to its essential core. From Rembrandt to Picasso, the art of portraiture developed through the medium of oil paint. So when the “plastic” language of acrylics and the light mechanism of photography became part of the medium, something profound happened to portraiture, and to its message.
Art is more than mere imitation or representation. One might have a gift for capturing what makes a person quickly recognizable, but that may be a gift for caricature rather than portraiture. The art of caricature, as in the New York Post or satirical political cartoons, is a gift for making someone recognizable, but not really for creating enduring “portraiture.” What is “real,” in terms of likeness, may not be the most important feature of a person, the part that is enduring.
A good portrait—like Michelangelo’s depiction of the young Andrea Quaratesi, an extraordinary drawing featured in the recent Metropolitan Museum exhibit, or Madame X by John Singer Sargent across the hall at the Metropolitan—remains enduring because the artist captures more than a person. The portrait moves us away from mere depiction of the external element and begins to reveal the mysteries of the inner person’s soul. Such a work captures both the present reality and historical context of the time. But it also actualizes future audiences to believe in the art of portraiture itself.
Painting in Pursuit of the Future
Artists, then, are futurists. And good ones intuit and, in some ways, create the future. Great art makes you believe. One might say that a good artist, through the visage of a face, captures the time that is now while also invoking the future, anticipating that many throughout the centuries will gather to honor such a gift. One might go even further and say that great art does more than invoke the future; it influences it. Great art motivates us toward escalating decisive action: we design a frame to protect it, enlarge a wall to honor it, create a building to enhance it, and ultimately shape a nation around it.
Think of Stuart’s Washington portrait, the one Dolley Madison risked her life to save. Stuart’s George Washington stretches out his hand, as if to invite us into that future. Considering the history of portrait painting up to that time, Stuart created a new form of portraiture, especially given the European past of depicting monarchs and dictators. Now, it is as if the flow of oil paint captures the spirit of the new land, and Washington’s outstretched hand ushers in the experiment of democracy as a new creation.
Why did Dolley Madison save it? As important of a symbol as the White House was and is, the highest level of craft known to America was in that painting because Stuart not only captured who Washington was—he also captured what America ought to be. It’s presence could influence the sitting president of the United States. The portrait had the power to shape a nation.
A painting can project into the future the hopes it captured in oil. The message, then, can transcend the medium. A good painting is a work that one may risk one’s life to save.
The Unpredictable Time Value of Art
The value of such a portrait’s worth, however, may be quite private. My friend and artist Ed Knippers had a portrait of his beloved wife Diane painted by a mutual friend Catherine Prescott. When Diane passed away at too young an age, the portrait was displayed at her funeral—despite being painted some twenty years earlier. It spoke of Diane’s indomitable spirit and character more than any photograph could capture. For those of us grieving with Ed, we needed that portrait to tell us not just that Diane lived but why she lived. The portrait displayed her legacy. Further, the loving texture of the paint told another story, that of their friend, an exceptional portrait painter, who cherished them both. Art reminds us of the deeper loves that we hold in life.
The initial spark of interest for Wiley’s portrait of President Obama was, significantly, through digital media. Everyone’s reaction—whether in favor of the painting or against it—was derived from a compressed digital image of the painted portrait. And when the critics and viewers gathered to see the actual painting, they were disappointed. Now, we must be sure to note here that some of the best art of the past did not wow the cynical critics of their day. It takes time for the judgment of art to be made. During that process the work begins to generate its own buzz and begins to speak for itself. Much like in a democratic vote, there is universal recognition of a good work of art—a consensus built over time of its worthiness.
Since I have not been able to see the Obama portrait up close and in person, I will refrain from my judgment of the painting. But, what I can attest to is that in recent times, artists have intentionally begun to paint in order to accentuate the digital compression of a work. Often what looks great in digital media or in a catalogue (both of which always flatten the image) fails to please in a real life viewing. The gap between reality, and, in this case, the charismatic sitter may have been amplified in the Wiley portrait phenomenon. Only time will tell.
From the digital media, it’s clear that Wiley’s portrait does something new in that it works like a collage, but that is part of the message. However, it remains to be seen if that “newness” will be a flash in the night, what the Greeks called “neos”—or an enduring, generative “new,” what the Greeks called “kainos.” In other words, will Wiley’s portrait continue to speak when there are multiple immersive technologies available to depict a person?
Dolley Madison had it right the first time.
It will be interesting to speculate what portrait artist Donald Trump will commission, if at all. He may desire a military parade instead, or a reality TV feature on his presidency. My secret wish is for former president George W. Bush (who turns out to be an able painter) to paint him.
My jest aside, if he were to commission a portrait artist, who would President Trump choose to paint his portrait? It is telling that unlike in Napoleon’s time, the answer is not as clear as choosing Ingres. I doubt that there is any painter alive who can project a large ego on canvas and do it justice (though I would love to be proven wrong). Ingres’s painting of Napoleon is bold, audaciously and impossibly large, and as such, his masterpiece dominates the history of portraits because of the power of power. Yet, I would not be surprised if the current president chooses not to have a painting as a “Disruptor in Chief.” If President Trump cannot be captured in the medium of paint, then what medium would capture him best?
The question now is the same as the one I had while meandering the halls of the White House: If a fire threatened the White House and you had the opportunity to save one painting, which one would you choose? No doubt, it will still be Gilbert Stuart’s “Lansdowne” portrait of George Washington. And that proves a point. In portrait painting, the oldest painting remains the best and it has gone downhill ever since. The ghostly images of the internet age are not worth saving, even though they will remain permanently digitized on our machines.
What is worth saving is the human touch and soul of both the artist and the sitter invoking the future, captured in the fluid medium of portraiture that can be burned up, and needs our hands to save it from that fire.
 President Bush did not drink alcohol, so many of us joined him.