Portrait Capital
Once, Paintings Of Politicians Were a Hot Item. Now, They Have Lost Their Edge.

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.

Above all, he said, he always wants to "please the client."

If a subject has no time to sit for him -- and almost none of them do -- he's happy to make the portrait a pastiche of photographs. (He said he's lost clients by insisting on live sessions.)

If clients don't like how they look in those photographs, he's happy to improve on them. When Hillary Rodham Clinton found the face in Knox's portrait of her husband a little gray, in came some pink paint and out went the five o'clock shadow that the photos showed. (Even Gilbert Stuart was less eager to please than that: In some of his most famous pictures of Washington, he chose to portray the president just as he was on the day he sat, complete with ill-fitting dentures and swollen lips. Some Old Masters managed to inject a critical note that feels almost like contemporary art, even into works that were commissioned. Goya's sitters almost all come off as deeply flawed; it's a wonder he could make a living as a court portraitist.)

Knox said the years have often begun to take their toll on his sitters by the time they matter enough to have a portrait painted. So he's eager to use his brush to give them a shot of pictorial Botox.

As Knox sums up his profession, official portraits need to capture likenesses -- even if they're not so truly like their sitters. And if possible they should tell a little story, too -- so long as it's a flattering one. And that's about it. Such portraits certainly aren't meant to break aesthetic ground or give new insight into art or life -- which is lucky, because they rarely do, if a tour of the Capitol's latest bumper crop of portraits is anything to go by.

The recent portraits in Congress sit somewhere between evoking the painted portraits of the past and copying corporate photography of more recent times.

They are strange beasts.

Mostly, they are creatures of our habits: The faces of George Washington and Teddy Roosevelt have come down to us in oil paintings, with a certain look and feel and scale and gilded frame, so we want to see our current leaders' portraits looking more or less the same. But if we demand such a strong link to the past, we make it hard for portrait painters to do more than copy their predecessors' art. It's as though we so admired Ben Franklin's prose that we insisted every modern journalist should write like him.

Of course such aesthetic issues wouldn't matter much if the central goal of official portraiture was to record a bunch of faces for posterity -- as it used to be. Today, however, that role has been usurped. When our descendants want to see what House speaker Dennis Hastert looked like, they'll go to any of a thousand photos that have been shot of him. Portraits have become markers of a sitter's stature in the establishment, and old-fashioned oil paintings seem to work best to mark that status -- because they make a current leader look a bit like bigwigs from our past.

Even the most moderately challenging contemporary art would send a very different, much stronger message. A probing photo installation, let alone a loop of video, would signal a deliberate break with that past and a preference for adventure over tradition and continuity. It's hard to imagine that in the halls of power.

Even politicians who enjoy today's newest art might hesitate to order portraits that look like it, because of the social baggage that might bring along.

"They are looking for the familiar, you could even say the formulaic," says Ann Temkin, a senior curator at the Museum of Modern Art, and that's the opposite of what she's looking to hang at MoMA. She and her colleagues seek out "things that we haven't seen before -- ways of looking at the world we haven't seen before."

As Brougher points out, the kinds of artists he's likely to acquire for the Hirshhorn make a point of pushing back against inherited cliches of portraiture. Starting in 1964, Andy Warhol did a series of portraits he called "Screen Tests" in which he simply sat his subjects down in front of a movie camera and asked them not to move. Since then, says Brougher, many important artists have tended to resist the idea of revealing the sitter's personality or social status. The physical appearance is intended as "a wall that you can't get through," he says, rather than a window onto who someone really is.

Even more recently some artists, like Cindy Sherman and Nikki Lee, both in the Hirshhorn collection, have staged the photographs they take. The portraits that result-- usually using themselves as models -- can't possibly be seen as telling truths about the figures that they show. Sherman can appear in any role from tramp to librarian to decomposing corpse. Lee has had herself portrayed as both trailer trash and yuppie princess. As Brougher points out, most of the portraiture that goes on in contemporary art is "the kind of thing that's in opposition to what federal officials want to say about themselves." It is, he says, an attempt to undermine, or at least question, the traditions of portraiture that most politicians are counting on when they have their pictures painted.

And generally speaking, he said, leading contemporary artists aren't interested in cozying up to the political establishment or in making a "history stamp" meant to disseminate a leader's face. (Even traditional portraitists can balk at commemorating certain politicians: Vice President Spiro Agnew was disgraced more than 30 years ago, but the Senate only recently found an artist to sculpt his bust.)

Even medium is an issue. It's pretty clear that a lot of the most significant portraiture of the past 50 years or more has been made by photographers. Edward Steichen, Richard Avedon and Irving Penn all produced portraits of important people that are noteworthy works of art, as well as the iconic evocations of their sitters. Dozens of today's most influential contemporary artists -- Nan Goldin, Thomas Struth, Rineke Dijkstra -- specialize in photographic people-pictures of one kind or another. A relatively straight photograph of John Kerry by Taryn Simon even made it into a comprehensive survey of New York's youngest cutting-edge artists, now in Queens.

But it's almost impossible to imagine Goldin or any of her colleagues being asked to represent a government official. Even as tame a figure as Yousuf Karsh, who shot the classic portraits of Winston Churchill and many other leaders, never made it onto the walls of the Capitol, where to this day only paintings are welcome as official portraiture.

When former House budget committee chairman Martin Sabo commissioned a portrait from painter Robert McCurdy in 2002, the artist did a decent job of using oils to approximate the look of one of Avedon's life-size, white-background photographs. But even then, it seems that Sabo's colleagues were not pleased with this departure from tradition, according to House curator Farar Elliott.

It's not that an official portrait painting can't recall a photograph. Almost all the recent ones do. Knox, who painted both Clintons from photos, says he doesn't know a single colleague who rejects the camera's help. But an official portrait can only look like photographs that even the most conservative viewers would recognize as absolutely inartistic work, if they saw them propped on someone's desk. Somehow, though, once those workmanlike photos have been translated into paint, what comes out counts as suitable for framing in gold.

The Capitol's official portrait of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, shown with the Mall stretching behind him, looks like it must have been painted from a photograph, or maybe from several photographs combined. But even if painter Thomas Nash didn't follow photographic sources slavishly, it still looks like he might have done so. That is, any tweaking done by Nash hasn't made the painting notably better than something a hack's camera could have snapped -- and that we wouldn't ever think of as a work of art.

On June 1, the National Portrait Gallery is launching its first nationwide portrait competition, borrowing an idea from its British counterpart. Photography isn't being allowed in. But even if some truly interesting painting or sculpture emerges when the winners are announced next year, it's hard to see how it could touch the hermetic world of official portraiture. Unless a picture looks a fair bit like the portraiture that's come before, it doesn't fill the peculiar social and political roles its patrons have in mind for it.

Contemporary art strives to be of its time, whereas politicians are likely to want "timeless" good taste that will ensure their immortality, even if they lose the next election.

Elliott, curator for the House, points out that most politicians don't want to commission works of art that might go on to be more famous or recognizable than they are. They might have a problem with "the kind of ars that's going to be longa " she said -- with art, that is, likely to be long-lived for its own sake, rather than because of who it represents. She also suggested a more positive take: Maybe politicians who commission portraits are not thinking of pleasing themselves or even their art-loving contemporaries, but of future citizens and legislators who will expect a certain kind of record of their nation's past.

"What they want and where contemporary art is right now may be two different places," says Brougher. And he thinks it could be a very long time before they come much closer together.

Chuck Close, a 64-year-old artist who paints huge portraits broken into a kind of mosaic grid, counts as a grand old man of American figurative painting. There are examples of his work in any art museum that can get one, and he has a large popular following. But even his work would pose a challenge as official portraiture, according to a recent talk by Betty Monkman, a former White House curator. In official Washington, she said, "there is a question of what fits into the decor," and that will make embracing more contemporary art a vexing issue for future presidents or leaders.

If money is being spent on public art of little lasting value, not all of it comes from taxpayers' wallets. Most of the official portraits intended for the Capitol cost in the middle of the $8,000 to $80,000 range often cited as the ballpark for custom portraiture, while the White House pictures can sit at the top of that scale. But they're often paid for by private sponsors, then "donated" to the nation subject to approval of the relevant art committee. (No one knows of any that have been turned down.)

In the Capitol, only portraits of the vice presidents, Senate leaders and speakers of the House depend on the public purse, and the White House commissions are all privately funded.

If there's any kind of scandal here, it's an aesthetic one. (If "aesthetic scandal" is not an oxymoron in our times.) We don't fill our most hallowed civic spaces with important art that rivals works already there by Gilbert Stuart or John Singer Sargent. We fill them with status symbols that happen to consist of gilt-framed canvases and that happen to have faces painted onto them.

The Capitol is "not an art museum," says curator Barbara Wolanin, who cares for many congressional portraits. Her colleagues in the nation's leading art museums would say that she is right -- because the recent paintings in it barely count as art.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company