Did Portrait Artist Dishonor President? Did Clinton Have Portrait Removed?
Read what all the controversy is about surrounding the Presidential Portrait
In 2006, former President Bill Clinton unveiled his official portrait, to hang in the National Portrait Gallery.
It seems that portrait is no longer on the walls of those hallowed halls.
Nelson Shanks, a celebrated portrait artist from Philadelphia says he knows why it has been removed–and it is because of a dirty little secret he included in the oil painting.
Even though the president selected the artist himself, and despite the fact that his fees are typically in the multiple 6 figure range, this artist is claiming he added something not very flattering to this portrait.
That little secret, not revealed to President Clinton before or at the unveiling? Shanks claims his painting includes a reference to the president’s own dirty secret: his affair with Monica Lewinsky.
As an artist we are of course able to reflect the personality and history of our subject. However, is it appropriate to include a reference that the sitter might not want–without letting him in on the secret?
Or is it okay to let him be in the dark about the symbolism in his own portrait? Is it okay as long as you, the artist, don’t spill the beans? And if that is the case, then why would you nearly 10 years later profess that you included this bit into the painting?
OK, so where is this reference to the event that places a shadow on Clinton’s presidency? Why, it is a shadow, of course. At least that is what Shanks says now.
Take note of the shadow falling on the fireplace.
Although the president posed for the portrait over many sessions, for more than 20 hours, the cause for the shadow was, apparently, not apparent during these sessions.
When the president was NOT present, the artist saw fit to place a mannequin wearing a blue dress in front of the fireplace. Off “camera” as it were, but illuminated enough to cast the shadow.
“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. It is also a bit of a metaphor in that it represents a shadow on the office he held, or on him.”
Although Shanks found Clinton to be pleasant, saying he talked about jazz, he found it to be a difficult job to paint his portrait. He couldn’t get the Lewinsky scandal out of his mind. So he including this visual reference.
According to Shanks, both Clintons are aware of the reference and asked that it be removed from the National Portrait Gallery.
The Clintons declined to comment. The National Portrait Gallery has confirmed that the portrait has been removed, but only because the presidential portraits are rotated. The museum spokesperson denies that the painting was removed at the Clintons’ request.
What do you think? Is the shadow a sly reference to Clinton’s scandal while in office? Was Shanks right to include the reference in the portrait? Was he right to not let the president in on the secret before the unveiling? Is it okay that he is telling the world about it now?
Or is Shanks making it all up for publicity–or because he is offended that his painting has been rotated out of the National Portrait Gallery?
Read the original interview with Stephanie Farr as seen on Philly.com
Photo of President Clinton unveiling the portrait courtesy Michel duCille /The Washington Post