Portrait Capital

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 29, 2005

Does any city order up as many portraits as Washington? Portraits are regularly commissioned for the White House, both sides of the Capitol, the Supreme Court, the major government departments and a slew of other official bodies and institutions. So many are made each year that, dig as deep as you like, you won't find anyone who knows the total count.

Despite the great art museums in our midst, you could argue that the official portrait is this city's official art form. But if you were to make that argument, you'd have to deal with a strange fact: As a rule, these newly painted pictures aren't the kinds of things that might end up in art museums.

Curators say official portraiture is simply too divorced from the main issues dealt with by today's leading artists. Kerry Brougher, chief curator at the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum, says such portrait painting isn't even on the radar for him and his staff. He was surprised to learn just how much of it there is in Washington. It has a different "endgame," he says, than the innovative art he and his counterparts across the country focus on -- and which they don't expect to find in the White House or the Capitol.

Today's official portraits could sit in historical collections such as the National Portrait Gallery, whose goal is to commemorate the country's crucial figures and their acts. ("By going for who's important," admits the gallery's chief curator, Carolyn Carr, "we sometimes miss the best pictures.") But those portraits don't seem to matter to institutions that focus on the history of art.

That may not come as a surprise. Today's politicians aren't best known for their advanced cultural patronage. Look to their ancestors, however, and you get a different story. A visit to the National Gallery's current Gilbert Stuart exhibition shows that there was a time -- it lasted at least 500 years, in fact -- when leaders had their portraits painted by the artists who mattered most.

George Washington was a busy man -- but he sat for Stuart. After 20 years of great success in London and Dublin, the artist headed home expressly to paint his native land's first president. And then he painted the next four holders of that office, too. In those days, leading artists sought commissions from top officialdom to show how high they ranked in the art world. It's hard to imagine one of today's art stars seeking that kind of affirmation from President Bush.

By any standard, Stuart's official portraits were significant works of art -- like the official portraits eagerly painted by masters such as Botticelli, Raphael, Rubens and Goya. Their portraits always grappled with the issues that the other major artworks of the day were dealing with. Even as recently as 1903, Teddy Roosevelt could coax a portrait from John Singer Sargent and get something that seemed pretty clued-in.

It's not that George Washington and company were self-conscious artistic radicals. The first U.S. presidents may have ridden a revolution in politics and thought, but their taste for Stuart's pictures was shared by London's stodgiest establishment. Circa 1800, however, you couldn't commission a portrait and not engage with live issues in art. Before photography, art inevitably involved at least two things: finding a way to render reality in paint, and keeping that practice fresh and meaningful. As soon as you set brush to canvas, those challenges popped out at you.

Official portraiture back then was more like what official cooking is today. Even if a president chooses a skilled chef from the middle of the road, that cook is going to be working with the same basic tools and materials as the young Turks and can't simply ignore the flavors and ideas they've introduced over the past 30 years. There's bound to be balsamic vinegar and sun-dried tomatoes and blood oranges on White House menus, even if there isn't -- or isn't yet -- eel flan in prune sauce and saffron cotton candy. It's almost impossible to imagine offering guests the stodgy roasts and puddings of 50 or 100 years ago -- which is precisely what today's official portraits serve up, in art-world terms.

Official portraitists don't share many of the tools, techniques and materials used by the contemporary artists whose work ends up in art museums -- they hardly even seem to share the same appetites. Recording a face for posterity and making it look fine and noble barely registers as something worth attempting in contemporary art, especially given how well it's been achieved before. What artist could hope to make a mark as a second Gilbert Stuart when there's hardly an American museum that doesn't already have a picture by the first ? When it comes to working in oil paint, the past's great portraitists have left so little breathing room that most artistically ambitious painters are likely to try their luck elsewhere.

Which means that today's official portraits tend to be a timid lot.

As he was leaving office, Bill Clinton got his presidential portrait done by self-taught photorealist Simmie Knox. When Knox was here recently to give a talk about his work, his notions about what an artist can and should achieve were pretty modest.

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