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November 16, 2010


Here's why it works so well: it's a final "test of faith" for the Republican loyalists.... Not for the people that actually like Sears portraits, but for that otherwise intelligent, competent guy who happened to be a Republican who came down fully on the side of the Iraq war , torture, and learned to hate Al Gore and John Kerry because he really, really loved tax cuts. This portrait represents a final loyalty test: can those supporters be forced to praise the portrait? We already convinced them to become global warming denialists and got them to mouth the platitudes they hear on Fox News and are taught to repeat on the WSJ editorial page, but here is the final task-- you must, with a straight face, talk about how great the presidential portrait is to show that you're "really" a Republican. You can do it: that coveted position as secretary of the Rotary Club is yours if you do.

I guess the flight suit was still at the cleaners...

Maybe he's rejecting the pretentiousness of the formal portrait with it's propaganda overtones and wants a picture that's closer to who he really was as a person. It's ridiculous to think that an official portrait will add even a farthing to the weight of a president's official actions on the scales of history.

Personally, I think the Reagan portrait is off too, although in a different way. In the small image the background looks Arcadian and in the enlarged version impressionist. The body changes from that style at the bottom to photorealistic at the top. The pose is good.
I think the GHW Bush portrait is the best of them despite being deliberately 'old-fashioned'.
While I think GWB's is not a really bad painting per se, I agree that one would not expect that to be the POTUS. The head looks a bit too small for the body and the whole figure looks slightly shortened vertically. One is drawn towards the flower pot immediately and that is the cardinal sin here, esp. since 'I'd rather have voted for a flower pot than...' and variants thereof have become proverbial. Cutting the top and removing the pot would make the picture much better (still not presidential).
Gazing into the future, what do you expect Obama's official painting will look like?
I guess there are two choices. Either it will be 'fresh' and 'different' (maybe like>this or it will be ultraconservative and totally stiff (I somehow imagine it to look like>this. The face would fit perfectly ;-).

the WMDs are not under that couch.

that portrait sure is going to put to rest all those nasty comparisons to a monkey, what with the squatting and all.

I think you convinced them to change it. If you click the link to the "official presidential portraits,", it looks like W has a new one now.

That somehow looks like a photo to me.

If you look closely, you can see the caption that reads:

What, me worry?

While I agree the portrait diminishes the office, this piece might be a bit overwrought.

I think the deal here is that Bush likes to think of himself as a regular guy.

Dear George: how can we miss you when you won't go away?

he looks like a regular guy, sitting in a nice sitting room, surrounded by well-placed, professional-grade, photo lighting. the light is directly on him, and yet there are nearly no shadows - just enough to suggest a little depth, but not enough so you could figure out where the light is coming from.

very strange.

OK, someone (that would be me) without talent (ditto) came up with this Obama family portrait ;-)
the left half of which could be turned presidential portraitish.
(I was too lazy to find a photo where he makes a longer face like Mr. Arnolfini in the original)

I'm with Hartmut. I can't stop looking at those damned flowers.

Good for President Bush. Really. The convergence of US presidential imagary on royalty, at least since Kennedy, and accelerating since Reagan, is one of the things that the big wide world has found most disturbing about the "American century".

Remember that sovereignty in the United States belongs to the people, and that the President is an elected civil servant, and give no quarter to those in Washington who would prefer it otherwise.

In an ideal world Obama would leave a crayon drawing of himself by one of his daughters.

Hey, where's the criticism of the pocket flaps? I mean, who wears a double-pocket shirt, flaps or no flaps, these days?


Remember that sovereignty in the United States belongs to the people, and that the President is an elected civil servant, and give no quarter to those in Washington who would prefer it otherwise.

And if the President thinks you need to be tortured -- well hey, nothing personal. You'd still want to have a beer with him afterwards.

TS's link shows us Madame Tussaud's George W. Bush, with a bleak DC sky partially seen through the window, and the clock at ten minutes to quitting time.

The book on the desk has no title that is legible, and is probably a prop in any event because everyone knows Bush can't read. But he's got his flag pin on, which is good. I mean, why have those giant flags in your office when you can carry one around with you wherever you go?

Can we just eighty-six all forms of "diminish the office" pearlclutching?

Truth be told, we'd all be better off if the office were a little diminished, given the extraordinary powers that presidents, Republican and Democratic, claim for the executive branch these days.

The Bush portrait is ridiculous looking. Who cares? He was among the nation's worst presidents; it fits.

Hartmut, no way Obama goes for anything but the most conservative approach to his portrait. Like a lot of trailblazers before him, he's partly working on making the majority of the country comfortable, but letting them know that the world is not radically changing around them. (Of course, the more paranoid are sure that the world is ending because he is so different. But some people simply cannot be reassured.)

As for GW Bush, I suspect that he decided that the flack was not worth it -- so a more "normal" official portrait got wheeled in quickly. But the first one definitely was successful at characterizing someone who was perfectly capable of doing the job . . . but really disinclined to put out the effort to do it well. Which, looking at his whole career, was a pretty accurate description.

I guess the question si exactly why does it fit so well to have such an inappropriate portrait of a PResident.

My client had the TV on so my eyes and ears were assaulted by a snippet of "Sarah Pailn's Alaska": Herself, the Earmark Queen, smugly burbling about how she loves the wild and being "free" and "away from Washington".

At first my reaction was that she had just sunk any hope of being President because that clip could be made so easily inot an ad against her. Who wants to elect a President that would rather go fishing than govern, who sneers so openly about her preference for being on vacation to doing her job?


Georgie got elected twice because he was the guy people wanted to drink beer with.

Smug? Check.
WIllfully, indeed gleefully and unapologetically, ignorant? Check
Someone who you would like to drink/fish/hunt/with? Check.
Expresses hate for Washington? Check.

If this is an acceptable image of a President, maybe Sarah Palin can get elected after all.

I agree with Ben Alpers.

This picture is silly looking, but then, the other portraits are in some ways worse, since they are part of that unhealthy tendency Americans have to put Presidents on a pedestal.

What we should have for Presidents is a montage--the high and low points illustrated in the background with the pompous idiot standing in the foreground. For Bush--well, someone tell me the high points. For the low points we could have photos from Abu Ghraib, people wading around in New Orleans, headlines about the collapse on Wall Street, stuff like that. For Clinton there could be something symbolizing the relative prosperity of the era. mixed with hints of how he helped set the framework for the financial collapse later on. Some pictures of Iraqi children suffering under sanctions would be good. That's the idea.

I really could not care less about Dubya's "official portrait."

Setting aside all of the metaphorical and style issues, it's just not a very good painting in terms of composition. Others have remarked on the vase of flowers, but I think they've understated just how much it sabotages the picture by drawing attention away from the subject. It's supposed to be a background set piece, but it's bright and sharply contrasting where the rest of the background is in very muted, homogeneous tones. This is especially striking given the vignetting effect that's been painted into the picture, where the lighting seems to fade around the edges--it makes it look like the vase is at least as important as the subject.

That said, I find that I don't really think the painting is all that inappropriate. Or rather, it is, but it doesn't bother me. Twenty years from now we'll have a generation of voters with no living memory of W's presidency, and everything they hear about our lost decade will be the stuff of history books or the memories of their parents. Some kid, somewhere, will look at this portrait, see how jarring it is, and think, "wow, he really was a clown compared to the rest of them".

If that's even one person, it's worth it. I hope they don't change it.

By then, that clown will have been "rehabilitated" into one of the bestest Presidents Evah!

I'm feeling particularly cynical today.

It's not a terrible portrait, but it's the sort that you'd put on the wall of your house, not the National Gallery. The casual nature of the pose is slightly shocking when compared to all the others. I think Bush always relished his image as the President you'd most like to have a beer with, and this portrait is intended to reinforce that. But in a hundred years, people are going to wonder why there's a portrait of Uncle George mixed in with all the presidents.

Looking at the gallery on Wikipedia, I'm a little surprised by how few of the portraits I actually like. Teddy Roosevelt, Taft, and Harding are all good, and the JFK is, imo, the best of the bunch.

Hmm, so why is the GWB portrait on the Wikipedia page different from the one we're talking about? It's more conventional, but I think it's even worse than Uncle George. His posture and hand position make him look tentative and uncomfortable, almost like a photo taken when he wasn't quite ready. At least casual Bush looks like he belongs in the painting.

Not sure what's up with the wikipedia image. The one at the National Gallery is the one referenced above.

The one on Wikipedia, according to Wikipedia, was commissioned by the Union League Club in Philadelphia. (I've been there. It's a weird anachronism, IMO.) Do they normally commission the "offical" portraits, or did Wikipedia just use that one as a stand-in until the real one was painted? (The photo of Obama is obviously not his official portrait.)

Anyhow. If I were choosing, I'd choose the one in which the President falls of his Segway.

Can't get more everyman than that.

Oh hey! Is that the couch he fell off when he choked on a pretzel?

Look, I bow to no-one for my level of disrespect and dislike for President Chimpy.

Having said that, though, this whole post is of a piece with the conservative pantie-bunching about Obama bowing.

I mean, really folks, GWB is a bottom-three President, right down there with Buchanan. That's what we, and history, need to remember.

Good for President Bush. Really. The convergence of US presidential imagary on royalty, at least since Kennedy, and accelerating since Reagan, is one of the things that the big wide world has found most disturbing about the "American century".

Remember that sovereignty in the United States belongs to the people, and that the President is an elected civil servant, and give no quarter to those in Washington who would prefer it otherwise.

Right, and so the President should be depicted in a dignified manner, as befitting the solemnity of the office. That's why they are depicted in dark suits, the very opposite of royal regalia.

Kings generally wear business suits these days. The suit is even more of a symbol of masculine dominance and class distinction than it used to be.

I like wearing one occasionally for just that reason.

And of course it's also a symbol of conformity and submission. When I see businessmen walking down the street in uncomfortable suits and ties while I'm wearing whatever I feel like, I feel a sense of relative freedom and status escalation (although I'm sure they mostly see me and think "Another useless underpaid flake", so it works out fine for both of us).

Point is, let's pretend I have a point here, the point is that a suit or lack of same isn't all that conclusive. George W. Bush was a suburban President, yes. America is a suburban nation, in large part. What's the big deal?

One reason the portrait doesn't please may be that there aren't that many John Singer Sargents around these days.

It's not just GWB's lack of jacket and tie, though that's pretty shocking.

No, what will really be shocking is how conservatives will not bitch about this informality, even though they've scolded Obama for being jacketless and with rolled up sleeves in the Oval Office.

W was into the lines...the beer took the edge off.

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