Presidential portraits celebrate the office; they don’t interrogate it

Washington Post photo by Matt McClain
The Obama portraits by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald at the National Portrait Gallery draw attention to the individuals rather than the office of the presidency or the role of the first lady.

Former president Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama will have their official portraits unveiled at the White House on Wednesday afternoon, a small but meaningful gesture of civility and continuity during these shaky times, but also a profound reminder that our reliance on decorum turns out to be a poor defense of democracy.

In recent years, we’ve learned that so many of the rules and rubrics we presumed to be enshrined in the Constitution or at least affirmed by law – sometime, somewhere – have been little more than common practice, niceties. There are a host of traditions that this country could well do without – the singing of the national anthem before sporting events, legacy admissions to elite universities, the mythologizing of bootstrap success stories. They turn patriotism into a competitive effort and treat financial success as something equally available to anyone with just a little determination. But other traditions have been invaluable in keeping the country moving forward, with leadership transferring from Democrats to Republicans, conservatives to liberals, without gunfire or bloodshed, until suddenly, it did not. In January 2021, our traditions failed us. The country was overtaken by malice and lies.

But that foundering was long in coming. Our staunch belief in the power and sanctity of our rituals left us blind to the reality. We’d painted ourselves a flattering picture over a canvas that was scarred and torn.

When President Biden hosts the Obamas at the White House, we will see an afternoon of high regard between two men whose enduring relationship is both personal and professional. But the event will offer an opportunity to take stock of the very idea of presidential portraits – these artful renderings that are as much a reflection of us as they are, so far, any one man.

They have a history of bland grandeur and stately swagger. They have not been examinations of flawed but humane men or interrogations of individual character. They have been odes to the institution and markers of time.

These portraits have long borne the burden of our collective struggle with civic self-reflection. We don’t like to see flaws, aside from a bit of pudge, and no failures. The dominant authors of this country’s history saw heroism at every turn and turned a blind eye to the cost of that hyperbole.

A review of presidential portraits reveals a gallery of gray-haired White men sitting or standing in a reserved manner, in the pose of folks who are at ease with greatness. Aside from their attire, they aren’t depicted in ways that offer much context for the times during which they governed. Even though many of the portraitists had the benefit of the passage of time during which they could consider their subjects and their actions in office, these men aren’t viewed through the discerning eye of unemotional history but rather the admiring eye of hagiography. In these renderings of the commanders in chief, they all get to be great. Or at least dignified, even if they kept other humans enslaved or aimed to resegregate a country that was just starting to tilt toward justice or helped embed the ill-considered term “welfare queen” on the nation’s psyche.

Most of these men face the viewer directly so that their eyes communicate confidence and rigor. If they’re shown in profile, it’s with their gaze set toward an unseen horizon. Perhaps they’re holding a sheath of papers or have their hand resting lightly on a chair or desk. The Capitol dome may appear in the distance. Only in recent years has the American flag been prominent. Bill Clinton is flanked by one. George W. Bush wears a small flag pin on his lapel. Some of the men smile, but their joy looks determined rather than easy. The presidency, after all, is a heavy burden. But the men are not grizzled. Many of the paintings hint at religiosity and manifest destiny.

If there’s one portrait in the historic collection that has always stood apart, it’s that of John F. Kennedy. It’s more impressionistic in its rendering, and it depicts Kennedy with his arms crossed in front of his chest and with his head tilted down in thought. It refrains from bravado and leans into the weight, solitude and uncertainty of the office. It’s a humble image, which is not to suggest that Kennedy was a humble man. Those who seek the presidency are typically endowed with an overabundance of self-regard. But it reflects most vividly the conflicting demands of the office and the complexity of this country.

Obama’s portrait will be added to this lineage. These White House images serve a different purpose than those commissioned for the National Portrait Gallery. The life-size Kehinde Wiley painting of Obama, which is part of the museum’s permanent collection, tells the story of the man. In its vivid and colorful rendering of him against the bold green flora that recalls his birthplace of Hawaii, as well as his familial roots in Kenya and his adopted home of Chicago, he’s sitting forward, tieless, exuding an easy charisma and focused mind. It highlights the personal. It speaks, in almost granular detail, to his identity and what that represents.

The official portraits that hang in the White House have always been a continuation of a seamless story. Obama interrupted the monochrome narrative with his Blackness, but we were quick to smooth over the rough spots of the country’s history by declaring the mere fact of his election tantamount to an end to our racial division rather than an uprooting of dormant rage.

Our traditions – beautiful, genial, photogenic – have a way of obscuring who we are. They’ve allowed us to camouflage our weaknesses. They allow us to believe things that are not true, to cast as certainty notions that fragile and tenuous.

In the unveiling of Obama’s portrait, we long for continuity. And surely, we want to celebrate the man and his administration. But to insure that the democracy goes on, we also need a rendering of the American presidency that is more of a reckoning, that doesn’t merely show its greatness but also its vicissitudes and follies. And that its relationship to democracy is a matter of faith as much as law.