The Obama portraits (reprinted from

Hail to the Chief

The unveiling of the portraits of the Obamas for the National Portrait Gallery—Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley and Michelle Obama by Amy Sherald—elicited the expected reactions from various sectors of the electorate. Unstinting praise from liberals, in general, swayed by affection for our exemplary First Couple, with art-world approbation for the deviation from the old-fashioned stodginess that we associate with presidential portraits. While I share that afffection for the Obama,s and appreciate their interest in supporting young black artists, I can’t help but feel that the paintings do not commemorate this historic administration. The styles are inappropriate. (In my opinion, more realistic artists would have been a better choice. To name two: Philipe Previl is a young black artist painting in contemporary mode based on Cèzannian ‘patch’ close observation; Margaret Bowland, a white woman, explores issues of power and race in her realistic works.)

Wiley’s Schiele-like magnification of head and hands may please those who make fun of 45’s small hands, but it seems to be slightly disprespectful to ‘fix’ 44’s hands, and the hedge of symbolic flowers (which suggested to various commentators both Homer SImpson and Sean Spicer) seems to me a rationale for the artist’s love of what resemble wallpaper patterns. Sherald’s likeness of FLOTUS is not great, with the drawing of her famous arms particularly boneless (the precedent of Ingres’s “Odalisque” does not really apply here), and whatever political convictions may be implicitly read into the dress, modway between quilting and Carnaby Street Pop, the subject gets rather lost in it. The intelligence, charm, dignity and humor of the Obamas is swallowed up in artist signature styles and retroactively applied political symbolism, i.e. allegory.

That said, I thought it might be interesting to look at and critique other works in the National Portrait Gallery (follow along at Contrary to popular belief and the current fashionable rejection of dead-white-male art and culture, there are many quite good works in the collection; lots of mediocre ones; and a few that are downright bad.

By good, I mean fundamentally realistic, with just enough idealization and theater for the intended audience of voters in a democratic republic: POTUS as primus inter pares, as was said of Washington, first among equals. Note that I do not evaluate the portraits based on my politics: a good painter can make a bad president look great (George Peter Alexander Healy’s James Buchanan), and vice versa (Robert Edge Pine’s George Washington). Evaluating artworks based on politics or morality is a bad habit inculcated by postmodernist education—vide the inflated scandals over Dana Schutz, Balthus, etc.—that we in the art community need to outgrow. Ask the bad boys—Caravaggio, Bernini, Picasso, and Freud—or any premodern artist who used his gifts to serve ideology and power not to our liking. (For that matter, the notion that realist painting is tainted by its servitude to imperialism and colonialism and that it is superseded by photography are additional fashionable absurdities long past their use-by dates.) Among the good to great NPG portraits I would list these fifteen, in chronological order:

1.     John Trumbull’s 1793 John Adams
2.     Gilbert Stuart’s unfinished 1796 George Washington
3.     Gilbert Stuart’s almost Impressionist 1805/21 Thomas Jefferson
4.     John Vanderlyn’s 1816 James Monroe
5.     Albert Gallatin Hoit’s 1840 William Henry Harrison
6.     James Reid Lambdin’s 1848 Zachary Taylor
7.     George Caleb Bingham’s 1850 John Quincy Adams
8.     George Peter Alexander Healy’s 1853 Franklin Pierce
9.     George Peter Alexander Healy’s 1859 James Buchanan
10.   Matthew Wilson’s 1883 Chester Arthur
11.   Thomas Le Clear’s 1880 Ulysses S. Grant
12.   Ole Peter Hansen Balling’s 1906 James Garfield
13.   Bernard Safran’s 1960 Richard Nixon
14.   Ronald N Sherr’s 1994-5 George Bush
15.   Robert A. Anderson’s 2008 George W. Bush

By mediocre, I mean works that fail, for a variety of reasons: incompetent painting or drawing; too much realism for comfort’s sake; kowtowing to fashion; and egregious falsification, i.e. propaganda of the lowest sort. Probably the worst executed of the portrait paintings is  Robert Edge Pine’s 1790 George Washington, an embarrassment; the most tasteless is Michael O’Brien’s 1989 magazine-cover-style photo of Donald Trump tossing an apple. The most banal are the blandly generic, overgeneralized waxwork figures depicting McKinley, Wilson, Coolidge, Hoover, Truman, Ford and Reagan, the epitome of which is Robert Clark Templeton’s 1980 Jimmy Carter, a stick figure lost in space. At the opposite end of the spectrum are those paintings that are too warts-and-all realistic, Too Much Information, including Rembrandt Peale’s unsparing 1795 look at a tired George Washington; August Benziger’s gangsterish 1897 WIlliam McKinley; William Valentine Schevill’s 1910 William Howard Taft and Anders Zorn’s 1899 Grover Cleveland, depicting those two worthies as—at least by current standards— uncomfortably stout; and Peter Hurd’s 1967 Lyndon Johnson, no oil painting himself, despite his civil-rights record, which we of a certain age remember as, in his words, “The ugliest thing I ever saw.” Competently painted, but either too stylishly rendered or false in their representations—the Chinese selfie app Meitu, loosely translated as Beauty Face (wang hong lian, Internet-celebrity face), comes to mind— are: Charles Bird King’s 1836 copy of a Gilbert Stuart 1826 profile of Thomas Jefferson in Roman-medallion style; Margaret Lindsay Williams’ 1923 Warren G. Harding, the handsome Chief Executive as fashion plate; and Norman Rockwell’s 1968 Richard Nixon, pensive and benigh, with a rubber arm four feet long, all the better to bring us together after the sibversive tumult of the Chicago Democrats’ convention, to peace with honor. Oops, there I go again, brainwashed by George Soros.