2016-12-29 22:46:17
Critic's Notebook: Presidential Portraits: Staring History in the Face

WASHINGTON — An inescapable fact of American elections is that a new president’s mug may soon be in your face, nonstop. For Donald J. Trump, a corollary is that he, like all newcomers to office, can keep company with the mugs of his choosing, decorating the Oval Office with presidential portraits — typically the official ones in the collections on view at the White House and the National Portrait Gallery.

The best of these images, as well as the lesser ones, offer revealing history lessons for Mr. Trump, as a recent viewing of the portraits in both places can attest. The most obvious lesson is how different these likenesses appear from his own: On Jan. 13, the museum will begin temporarily displaying a portrait of Mr. Trump from its collection: a 1989 studio photograph by Michael O’Brien. Taken at a time when the president-elect was famed as a billionaire real estate pooh-bah, it served as the cover image for his autobiographical book “Trump: Surviving at the Top.”

The picture appears to be a mild riff on René Magritte’s 1964 painting “Son of Man,” in which that Belgian artist depicted himself standing stiffly against a cloudy gray sky, dressed in a bourgeois topcoat and bowler hat, with a large green apple floating in front of his face. It’s an image about repression, conflict, mystery, all of which the O’Brien photo strips away. Its sky is a fierce bright blue. An insouciant Mr. Trump, 40-something, baby-faced, pre-blond-rinse, has one arm cocked, hand on hip. With the other he tosses an apple, a red one — the Big Apple, we are meant to think, his plaything — into the air. His self-confident smile tells us that, without even looking, he’ll catch it coming down. (Mr. Trump was not involved with the museum’s display.)

Portraits in the Oval Office are largely inaccessible to the public. But you can see those in other parts of the White House during a public tour, as you are moved briskly down ill-lit halls, past roped-off reception rooms. The artworks are distant and dim, and given the low visual recognition value of most presidents past — would you know Millard Fillmore if you met him? — they could be of anyone.

But it’s possible to approach the same faces, in some cases painted by the same artists, up close, as I did, at the National Portrait Gallery, a short walk from the White House, in a permanent-collection display called “America’s Presidents.”

The initial impression is of uniformity. Our leaders have been white (until 2008), straight (as far as we know) and male. What was diverse about them lay in intangibles: personality, moral compass, I.Q. — all hard to read in a formal portrait. (Ulysses S. Grant looks resolute enough on canvas, but a visitor encountering him during his White House years wrote of his “puzzled pathos, as of a man with a problem before him of which he does not understand the terms.”)

Another impression: These portraits aren’t, for the most part, masterpieces, which doesn’t mean they’re uninteresting. And there are some outstanding ones, like the high-polish oil sketch of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart that became the source of many other images, including the sour, sidelong-glancing Washington on the $1 bill. The Stuart sketch isn’t on view now, but other pictures are. And one, on loan from the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., is a departure from type.

Painted in 1782 by Charles Willson Peale, it’s a three-quarter-length portrait of a prepresidential Washington, in his warm-up role as commander in chief of the Continental Army. He’s just come from the battlefield, which is behind him, but his cream-colored uniform, with its blue silk sash, is spotless. He’s relaxed, one hand on hip, the other leaning on a cannon. He has a very faint, knowing, measuring smile, as if at some thought he’d just had, possibly about you. A comparison with the Trump portrait would not be unrealistic, which is something to think about it.

We Americans preach populism, but when it comes to voting, we often go for leaders with money and some sort of fame. Washington — celebrity warrior and gentleman farmer, owner of hundreds of slaves — had both. So did our third president, Thomas Jefferson, who also owned slaves and didn’t pretend to be a man of the people in a mingling sense, yet drafted one of the world’s primary egalitarian documents. You sense the contradictions in a 1786 portrait done when he was the American minister to France. In Mather Brown’s depiction, he’s all bouffant wig and ruffles, encased, it would seem, in an elitist bubble. Yet the year the picture was made, one of the most important civil rights bills he ever wrote, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom — forbidding discrimination against the practice of any faith — became American law.

Concepts of how presidential power should look and act change with eras, artists and personalities (and with scholarly assessments of leaders, which are constantly being revised). Andrew Jackson, elected in 1828, engineered a kind of populist revolt. Playing up his Southern backwoods roots, his military career and his disdain of the political establishment, he treated politics as a form of performance art. He played the role of Mr. Manifest Destiny, a loudmouth bully who took what he wanted — Western land, Native American lives — on behalf of the People.

He put on a feisty show. He threatened to lynch a pesky opponent, and when Congress squelched an appointment he wanted to make, he shouted, “I’ll smash them!” His fans ate it up. And he found the right artist to paint him, the rough and ready Ralph E. W. Earl, who depicted Jackson life-size, majorly coifed and draped like a king, or maybe Liberace, in a floor-length, scarlet-lined cloak.

Other, later presidents also benefited from visual spin. An 1859 portrait by the skilled George P. A. Healy transformed John Tyler, an officeholder short on charisma and executive savvy, into a lofty Romantic star. Healy’s gift for flattery was rewarded with commissions to paint four additional presidents, the last of them Abraham Lincoln.

Healy’s Lincoln portrait was conceived in the 1860s but executed some 20 years later. This famously tall and ungainly president sits scrunched up in a chair, legs crossed, hand to chin, thinking hard. It’s a glam shot. This Lincoln is young, pink-cheeked, blow-dried, kind of cute. To see him as he really was at the end, seek out the so-called “cracked plate” photo by Alexander Gardner, taken two months before Lincoln’s death. (There’s a modern print in the National Gallery.) Only 56, he was clearly worn to the bone.

Lincoln had one of the great faces, one of the great presences. It was impossible to make him anything but extraordinary. Less prepossessing leaders needed help from art. Rutherford B. Hayes, President No. 19, didn’t get much. In the furiously contested 1876 election, he squeezed out victory by the tiniest of margins, and the malicious phrase “His Fraudulency” shadowed him throughout his term. In his portrait by Eliphalet Andrews, he’s a haunted, worried man.

The bulky, bulldoggish Grover Cleveland got a diversionary assist from his brilliant portraitist, Anders Zorn, who turned Cleveland into a still life and made virtuosic brushwork the real subject of the painting. Warren G. Harding’s stint in office was corruption-riddled; every aspect of it seemed up for sale. Worse, his grasp of matters of state was nil. (A listener described a speech by him as “an army of pompous phrases moving across the landscape in search of an idea.”) The Republican Party had put him forward, it was said, because “he looked like a president.” If so, the Smithsonian portrait of him by Margaret Lindsay Williams may be assumed to define the winning executive brand, circa 1923: Mike Pence matches it to a T.

Official portraiture is about advertising, and therefore about invention. Calvin Coolidge spent much of his time in office doing little and saying nothing. Yet, in a portrait by Joseph E. Burgess, he’s a pugilist ready to spring. An unfinished 1945 painting of Franklin Delano Roosevelt by Douglas Chandor is most notable for including studies of that leader’s expressive, pencil-holding hands. These are the hands that wrote the New Deal into existence. They are also the hands that signed the order to confine Japanese-American citizens to internment camps during World War II, a racist act that some say is echoed in the current call for a ban on Muslims.

As for more recent presidential images, they don’t add up to much: stuffed suits, basically. Richard M. Nixon lucked out in a 1968 Norman Rockwell portrait that makes him a nice, normal guy. Bill Clinton was less fortunate in a 2006 Chuck Close painting that turns him into a grinning clown.

Maybe the Clinton picture represents a new brand of presidential portraiture, for a time when politics and entertainment are indivisible, heroes and rogues indistinguishable. Mr. Trump’s apple-juggling 1989 promo shot fits in here.

A few of these portraits will just be fun for Mr. Trump to have around: James Buchanan looking like a dandy, Chester Arthur with his elaborate mutton chops. But the images of the presidents also form a kind of national document: a pictorial history of American arrogance, aggression, persecution and moral confusion, with a balancing one of sobriety, self-discipline, just action and restraint.

And if President-elect Trump is, as has been reported, impatient with briefings by his staff, he should consider communicating with his distant predecessors. With Lincoln, who, in his second Inaugural Address, promised a government that ruled “with malice toward none, with charity toward all.” With Washington, who, in popular myth at least, declared, as a moral precept, “I cannot tell a lie.” And with Washington’s successor John Adams, the first White House resident, who, upon moving in, wrote to his wife, Abigail, words that were both a charm and a charge to the future: “May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.”