It seems a leap of faith to have one's portrait painted, to surrender one's own version of reality to someone else's -- particularly if one happens to be a politician. Good politicians, after all, are masters at managing how the world sees them.
So, last night, when the National Portrait Gallery unveiled portraits of Bill Clinton and Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), there was the former president, looking energetic and expressive, laughing or jutting out his lower lip, flanked by the portrait president, standing in the Oval Office, looking flat and tired. It turns out three-dimensionality suits Bill Clinton.
And there was Hillary Clinton, glowing in both mediums. Her portrait depicts her in profile against a plain brown background, and the style borrows heavily from 14th-century Italian art (never mind the butter-yellow suit). It turns out the Renaissance suits her .
"It's an odd experience to have your portrait done," said the former first lady during the unveiling at the Smithsonian Castle, before an audience that included her mother, Dorothy Rodham, her daughter, Chelsea, and other luminaries. ("My son was [Chelsea's] orthodontist," said one audience member.)
Bill Clinton joked that he was worried when he found out his portrait would be almost eight feet high. Judging from the White House's collection of presidential portraits, he said, the size of past presidents' portraits seems to indicate "an almost inverse relationship to their importance to the country."
Afterward, the artist chosen by Hillary Clinton to do her portrait, Ginny Stanford, said she borrowed from Renaissance painting because Clinton's face is so iconic, and she wanted to invoke "a timelessness."
Besides, Stanford added, "she's got a great profile."
The senator's stylist, Isabelle Goetz, came over to the artist and they chatted about the senator's hair and its "movement." Goetz later said she thought the portrait turned out well. "She was worried," Goetz said of her boss. After all, the portrait "is going to be forever."
Reopening in July
The public will get a chance to see both portraits in July, when the National Portrait Gallery's six-year renovation is completed and it reopens in the Old Patent Office Building. The museum houses the only complete collection of presidential portraits outside the White House.
Once upon a time, the National Portrait Gallery -- which opened to the public in 1968 -- purchased or received donations of presidential portraits that had already been painted. Starting with George H.W. Bush, the museum began commissioning portraits, paying for them by raising private funds. This time around, the museum decided to begin commissioning a first lady portrait as well. Museum officials wouldn't reveal how much the portraits cost, though the artist Bill Clinton chose, Nelson Shanks, has been known to charge up to $200,000 for his services.
Shanks has painted such luminaries as the late Ronald Reagan ("couldn't have been nicer," the artist said yesterday before the ceremony), former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher ("we became super friends") and the late Princess Diana ("simply adorable"). Shanks, who is based in Bucks County, Pa., painted Clinton at a studio the artist keeps in New York, where the former president posed for nearly 20 hours in small chunks of time. (Shanks pronounced him "warm" and "personable" and said Clinton talked about jazz.)
Shanks says he tried to experiment with the traditional look of presidential portraits. He wanted to make Clinton look "real," as opposed to "so presidential-looking he became an icon of non-humanity."
‘A relaxed nature’
He added: "I think the painting really feels like Bill Clinton. It has -- I would not call it swagger. . . . What? An informality? A looseness, a relaxed nature."
In Shanks's painting, Clinton's suit jacket is open and his hand is on his hip. His face is lined and it lacks the energy that those who've seen him work a crowd know so well. Perhaps swagger, or whatever it is, cannot be captured in paint.