Through the jaundiced eye of one beholder

2008 December 29
George W. Bush by Robert Anderson, 2008, oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

"George W. Bush" by Robert Anderson, 2008, oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

The serendipity of receiving a Christmas gift of Five Hundred Self-Portraits, one of those lavish yet compact Phaidon compendia, and the recent unveiling of George Bush’s portrait commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery prompted a number of errant thoughts about official portraiture. Bush’s portrait (left), as a sitting (or, more accurately, lingering) president, is, at first glance, refreshingly informal in its pose and dress. It also is reminiscent, in its juxtaposition of furniture and subject, to Norman Rockwell’s 1968 portrait of Richard Nixon (lower right). But, if you take a closer look at the two portraits, there’s another similarity. The relaxed Nixonian demeanor that Rockwell “captured” is an expression that I suspect the notoriously ill-at-ease president never actually exhibited (unless, perhaps, he had already indulged in several of the dry martinis he reportedly favored). Bush’s countenance also has a fantastic aspect; in the eye of this beholder, his face seems split in two, his mouth perching uncertainly between his nose and jaw in a manner not unlike one of those cut-out faces in a Conan O’Brien gag interview. That the lingering president’s arms seem longer than his legs may be a consequence of his somewhat precarious perch on the couch—but I would propose that the most interesting, and best-executed, aspect of the portrait is Bush’s overly large hands and interlaced fingers, not to mention his watch (an oval echoing the bigger—blanker?—oval of his face).

My riff notwithstanding, this is really not a particularly interesting portrait, in keeping with most presidential portraits. The just-one-of-the-guys open collar shirt may suggest otherwise, but there’s not much to contemplate if you don’t indulge in observing the painting’s infelicities. So why are we saddled with such a tradition of bland official portraiture? While one may easily criticize the “accuracy” of the two portraits of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair that were unveiled earlier this year, they nonetheless offer poses, expressions, lighting, and accoutrements that, intentionally or not, leave the viewer feeling ever so slightly queasy . . . altogether not a bad way to commemorate the subject’s dodgy term of office.

Richard M. Nixon by Norman Rockwell, 1968, oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

"Richard M. Nixon" by Norman Rockwell, 1968, oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Last 5 posts by Josh Brown

2009 January 5
Aaron Knoll permalink

Though Bush seems to be looking straight at the viewer- as is Nixon- Bush has an interesting light and dark thing going on with his face and hands- which seems vaguely reminiscent of The Godfather or Star Wars.

The light/dark dichotomy also makes a statement on the legacy of Bush itself: a man with a congenial smile and an inescapable slightly darker side. Depending on how the history books read Bush’s presidency in half a century this portrait might be an interesting example of the contemporary split between uniter and divider in the way the country has viewed the past eight years.

2009 January 5
Andrea permalink

Yes, the least interesting thing about the Bush portrait is Bush. Although the hands seem to be beautifully painted, the man looks cut out, the face looks like a good illustration, too evenly rendered perhaps, definitely not interesting. Indeed, he probably held the pose for all of a mintue, long enough for a photograph. It doesn’t even look like the artist used a look-alike to get a feel for his weight on the couch or his arm actually leaning on the arm of the sofa.
However, without Bush, and even though I’m not keen on flowers, I like the room and its depth and the simple furniture. I suppose trying to show us what a likable ordinary guy he is. The painting reminds me of a certain late 19th or early 20th c. French still life artist whose name I don’t recall at the moment. Nice use of form and muted color, and “painterly,” for lack of a better word.

2009 January 13

[…] the National Portrait Gallery hung the recently unveiled portrait of our nation’s forty-third president, the accompanying caption characterized his presidency as having been shaped by “the attacks […]


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