Tim Mostert puts the Obama presidential portraits in the right perspective.
The recently unveiled Obama portraits are of a type that I have seen many times in my career as an artist and art historian. The poses are wooden, the compositions hackneyed, and both subjects have obviously been copied from photographs. To make up for the technical weakness of the painting’s execution, the artist relies on gimmicks to drag their image over the finish line, hoping that that will mask his limited technical abilities, or at least divert attention from them.
The official portrait is part of an old tradition perfected by Renaissance painters more than 500 years ago. The artists were generally painting powerful old men, who tended to be a bit ugly. To make up for what lacked in the sitter’s physical beauty, the artist would emphasize the internal. A great painting of a king or pope tells you something about the subject’s inner thoughts, his psyche. The image is more about what’s going on inside his head rather than the outer trappings of his position or status. Great paintings by Titian and VelÃ¡zquez show us the most powerful men in their world, but we feel we know them intimately. This is what a great artist can do with simple paint and canvas â€“ no copying photographs, no assembly line of assistants doing most of the work, and no gimmicks to hide their lack of ability.
The Obama portraits are kind of shocking â€“ not only because the paintings are so clichÃ©d and amateurish, but because Barack and Michelle would choose artists primarily by virtue of their skin color and radical views instead of whether they could actually pull off an official portrait. With no budget limitations, you choose these two? These substandard paintings will hang in the National Gallery for all time. I assume that the Obamas wanted to prove a point. With the Obamas, everything comes down to race and retribution, and here was one last chance to rub someone’s nose in something.
The Obama portraits are a sad reflection on how bad a choice someone can make when given the opportunity to do something great.
Think of the position of absolute privilege you would be in, if you could choose any artist in the world to paint your portrait. No ceiling on the budget. You can choose any artist, and he will immortalize, knowing he will be paid handsomely, and his work will be prominently displayed in the prestigious National Portrait Gallery. Bizarrely, you base your choice on political affiliation and race rather than artistic ability. If we chose pilots and surgeons in the same way, most of us would be dead.