Are painters of presidential portraits that hang in the National Portrait Gallery entitled to inject personal opinions of the subjects into their work?
This question never came to mind until Philadelphia artist Nelson Shanks’ likeness of Bill Clinton was unveiled, and in case you didn’t catch it in the painting, he made clear his opinion of Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
Shanks explained the portrait to the press this way:
“If you look at the left-hand side of it there’s a mantle in the Oval Office and I put a shadow coming into the painting and it does two things. It actually literally represents a shadow from a blue dress that I had on a mannequin, that I had there while I was painting it, but not when he was there.” He added that the shadow “is also a bit of a metaphor in that it represents a shadow on the office he held, or on him.”
The painter didn’t mention this, but given his focus on the shadow, it could also be a reminder of the telltale stain on the dress – Clinton ejaculate – a detail once so talked about that the words blue dress became code for the whole Lewinsky affair.
Of course, one may well wonder why Shanks thought it was a good idea to remind us of Clinton’s moral misstep. The answer sits plainly in another of his statements: “The reality is he’s probably the most famous liar of all time…I could never get this Monica thing completely out of my mind.”
Apparently Shanks thinks that because he’s hung up on the affair of the 1990’s, American history has to be hung up on it, too. Calling Clinton “the most famous liar of all time” signals his belief that Nixon’s lies – not knowing about his administration’s “dirty tricks” and plans to thwart the investigation – were of little consequence next to Clinton’s lies about sex.
But fixation on the president’s lies about sex makes Shanks at 77 seem oddly naïve. Surely he knows that Clinton wasn’t the only American President to indulge in an extramarital affair. Roosevelt and Lucy Mercer, Ike and Kay Sommersby and Lyndon Johnson and Alice Glass come to mind. Clinton just had the bad luck at being caught.
Speaking of lies, in an interview before painting the portrait, Shanks showed zero sign of the Monica obsession he spoke of after painting the portrait. In fact, he told Philadelphia Inquirer art critic Edward Sozansky, “There are times when I love to play all kinds of complicated games in painting. But I think this is one case when I need to be fairly straightforward. I’ll just try to paint the man, his intelligence, his amiability and his stature, maybe paint him fairly close to humor and try to get it just right.”
Not exactly the words of one who said he could never get the Monica thing completely out of his mind.
The National Portrait Gallery needs to stash Shanks’ painting in a dark corner somewhere and commission another portrait of Clinton.