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February 12, 2007

Recent Presidential Portraits Are Mediocre?

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Some people think the United States has been going to hell since Washington's time. That's nothing new.

But now there's a new wrinkle. Not long ago in the Wall Street Journal, Catesby Leigh penned this article asserting that the same thing has been happening regarding presidential portraits.

Leigh noticed that following President Ford's death, the Washington Post used Everett Raymond Kinstler's portrait as its illustration.

Think of presidential portraits and the first that comes to mind is most likely Gilbert Stuart's iconic George Washington, possibly followed by John Singer Sargent's very differently conceived Theodore Roosevelt. Though technically at least as competent as the general run of portraits of postwar presidents in the gallery and the White House, this work by Mr. Kinstler--painted in 1987, a decade after the artist's prominently displayed White House portrait of the same president--is a far cry from Stuart's or Sargent's achievements.

Leigh then goes on to compare Kinstler's painting to "a touched-up photograph."

It operates at the factual, prosaic level. Absent are poetic evocations of character, such as the virtues required to shoulder the burdens of the presidential office, let alone any symbolic indications of the ties that link Ford to the nation's ideals and destiny. Mr. Kinstler's Ford is just a likeable, smiling, aging hunk of a guy standing next to a table.

Gilbert Stuart's 1796 "Landsdowne" portrait of Washington, on the other hand, is richly symbolic, harkening to classical times.

The Landsdowne Washington is situated in a pictorially and symbolically complex setting. He is situated, in other words, within the grand tradition of European portraiture. Behind him columns--emblems of order--are arranged on a diagonal, as are a chair and draped table. Symbols of republican principles and ideals, ranging from leather-bound tomes to an exposed table leg in the form of the Roman fasces, abound. Washington loosely grasps the sword of victory in his left hand while beckoning with his right, creating a certain visual tension as he turns slightly to align himself with the dominant diagonal. He beckons not to us but to the future, to an era of promise opened by the constitutional covenant, itself evoked by the rainbow in the background. Hanging folds of rich fabric intensify the aura of grandeur.

Sargent's TR has an essentially blank background, but the absence of symbolism is compensated by the portrayal of the sitter's character.

Leigh goes on to lament about the quality of Presidential portraits of recent decades. What should be done?

Presidential portraiture should bind the national leaders of our time and of times to come to their predecessors, rather than forcing a chasm between past and present. A presidential portrait need not remind you of George Washington--after all, a variety of character types have shown themselves equal to the office--but it should be an inspiring image. Accordingly, the portraitist should also consider incorporating his subject into a pictorially and symbolically complex setting that evokes an enduring national heritage of liberty.

This did not sit well with noted portrait painter John Howard Sanden who took issue with Leigh here and in a second piece here presented some recent Presidential portraits for us to examine.

Sanden's take (in the first link) can be summarized by the following quotes:

I would contend that the [portrait] by Gilbert Stuart, is stagey, contrived and artificial. The subject is made to stand forever in a theatrical or oratorical pose (which I suspect was totally uncharacteristic of the man) surrounded by grandiose furnishings that serve only as allusions to history. Nothing here, either in the setting or the pose, is real. We are told virtually nothing about George Washington the human being, apart from the consensus that he was a strong and admired leader of men.

On the other hand, the portrayal of President Ford by Everett Raymond Kinstler eschews the well-known (by now) trappings of Presidential power. We do not need to be reminded of Air Force One, or seried ranks of soldiers, or long motorcades with flashing lights, or even the stately columns of the White House. Gerald Ford the individual is offered to our gaze. We are able to form an estimate of his personal warmth (or lack thereof), his dignified mien, his potential as a family head as well as civic magistrate—through artist Kinstler's vividly impressionistic capture. We are permitted to form an estimate of Gerald Ford the man.


Imagine for a moment if a painter in 2007 produced an image of George W. Bush on a Lansdowne-sized canvas, complete with heroic gesture and the trappings of Roman power. The firestorm of ridicule in the media would be breathtaking.

If this controversy interests you I urge you to go to each of the links, above, and read the assertions and study the portraits. For what it's worth, I mostly side with Sanden. His final paragraph in the quoted material above is exactly to the point.

Kinstler has had an interesting career, starting as a comic-book artist who moved on to illustration, including covers for pulp magazines and paperback books before turning to portraiture in the early 1960s. A great book covering the 1943-62 Kinstler cam be found here. Its cover is shown below.

Kinstler book cover.jpg



posted by Donald at February 12, 2007


Aha! It's a long-long portrait of Ronald Reagan in the White House!

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on February 12, 2007 11:18 AM

I thought the Ford portrait awkwardly posed, and also not a very good likeness. The Washington portrait was execrable. Of the three, the Roosevelt portrait was the best of the lot, but I thought it was pretty forgettable.

In other words, they were all pretty typical of institutional art.

As to the philosophical points, I side rather more with Sanden than with Leigh. The Washington portrait reminds me of nothing so much as grade-school "heraldry":

"I like trains, so there's a train on the bottom, and I like dogs, so there's a dog looking out the window of the train, and ...."

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on February 12, 2007 1:16 PM

I like Gerald Ford's portrait way better than George Washington's. My guess is George (who didn't want to be a King) would've liked Ford's portrait better. I agree that more of the spirit and personality of the man is in the Ford portrait---truthfully, it is a bit idealized, as he looks smarter and more engaged than I remember him actually being! Washington looks like a short dufus in an uncomfortable pose and I don't think most people stop to "get" the "symbolism" of the sword or quill pen.

But the guy who did the Lincoln memorial---now HE got the idea of a Presidential Portrait.

Posted by: annette on February 12, 2007 2:19 PM

Times change. In Washington's time presidents were supposed to be statesmanly; now they are supposed to be regular guys. The portraits reflect this.

Posted by: SFG on February 12, 2007 2:35 PM

The same degenerative process can be traced in our coinage and currency. Compare an old liberty eagle quarter to the ones today to get the full effect, or the buffalo nickel to the stuff the mint is stamping out nowadays. Since WWI, there has been an accelerating degenerative influence at work in the visual arts that is disconcertingly similar to that of the late Roman empire. Their official portraiture in the 3rd century suffered a gradual decline in aesthetics until the likenesses became little more than symbols of power, interchangeable with other likenesses. Is there a connection here? Is the dead hand of government a killer of the arts? Or is it an organic process related to Spengler's theory?

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on February 12, 2007 3:11 PM

In the examples shown by Landen, the Norman Rockwell portrait (double portrait, really) of Nixon stands out. Superb modeling of the heads, that somehow conveys the complexity of Nixon's character.

There is a truly outstanding posthumous portrait of JFK by Jamie Wyeth. The conception is startlingly bold. A frontal view. Almost the entire lower half of Kenndy's face is blocked out by the hand on which he is resting his chin . It can be accessed at google image: Jamie Wyeth portrait JFK

Posted by: ricpic on February 12, 2007 5:33 PM

Maybe we should have non-representational "portraits" by leading loonies. That would speak much more to our historical trajectory than a picture of Clinton with a latte on the desk and a Pulp Fiction poster on the wall.

Posted by: J. Goard on February 12, 2007 5:44 PM

It's hard not to see the newel post that Teddy's hand is so commandingly encompassing as a visual metaphor for the globe.

Posted by: Pollingue on February 12, 2007 10:39 PM

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