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Here are some actual facts about those Obama portraits

A portrait of President Obama in the National Portrait Gallery.

Paintings of President and Mrs. Obama were unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery yesterday morning, and the press and social media have been spraying nonsense ever since. The portraits have gone viral, but it’s been a virality of ignorance, and a classic case study of how today’s media landscape is bent to favor sensationalism over fact.

Though this adjective has been used incessantly in all reporting on the paintings, these portraits of the Obamas are not their “official” portraits. A president really only ever gets one “official” portrait in his lifetime, and that’s the photograph designated by the US Government Publishing Office to be used in federal buildings. Because said photo is authorized for mass reproduction by a government agency, it can be safely called “official,” in the same sense the federal government produces “official” tax forms or “official” signs at national parks.

The National Portrait Gallery is a branch of the publicly-run Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC where you can see paintings of famous people. Some of these people are presidents and their wives. For a relatively short period of time, that is, since the retirement of president George HW Bush, the Gallery has made a tradition of inviting ex-presidents and First Ladies to unveil portraits of themselves as they are added to update the Smithsonian’s collection (usually about a year or so after a family leaves the White House). Generally speaking, these portraits are known for being somewhat unusual — at least by the standards of what people expect a presidential portrait to look like.

The portraits of George W. and Laura Bush are both very casual, with her reading a book and him sitting in a wide stance with an open necked shirt. Bill Clinton’s depicted him in a bizarre pose that seemed to emphasize his crotch, while Hillary was given a much smaller, horizontal portrait that depicted her in profile. Bill’s artist seemingly didn’t like the ex-president (“the most famous liar of all time”) and bragged about including a subliminal reference to Monica Lewinsky in it. The dislike was apparently mutual, and the NPG people have since commissioned a new one of Bill, though it’s no less strange. The slightly avant-garde depictions of the Obamas are hardly unprecedented when viewed in this context. But it’s all fairly irrelevant, given these are not “official” portraits in any meaningful sense, let alone “the” official portraits of the couple. Any gallery anywhere can commission a painting of any president. Presidential art can be seen across the country, and most presidents are painted numerous times, by numerous artists, for numerous galleries.

The Bushes unveil their portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, December, 2008.

The Bushes unveil their portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, December, 2008.

What lazy reporters are choosing to confuse the NPG paintings with are White House portraits, which are commissioned by the White House Historical Association and hang in the White House. I guess these could be considered “official” portraits, — though even the White House Historical Association itself doesn’t use that term — as these are portraits authorized to hang in a government building. The WHHA portraits are unveiled in a White House ceremony several years after the president retires, and thus several years after the NPG portraits are unveiled — indeed, the NPG seems to deliberately sow public confusion by organizing such a similar ceremony, held so soon after a president leaves office, when public attention is likely to be high.

The White House portraits of the president and First Lady are traditionally revealed by the ex first couple in the presence of the current first couple, in what is usually characterized by the press as a happy moment of bipartisan levity. These ceremonies, however, do not usually get a lot of media attention as they tend to occur so long after a president leaves office. The dullness of the art also works against them being much fun to write about — the WHHA portraits are usually very conservative in depiction, with the president and First Lady formally dressed, standing upright or sitting regally, in some real-world White House setting. Nevertheless, these are the portraits that usually find their way into textbooks and flashcards and so forth, and are thus the sorts of paintings that deserve to be given the critical eye the Obama portraits are currently receiving. A White House portrait is a much more important historical object than a National Portrait Gallery one, and enjoys a far more permanent place in the American canon.

The Obamas and the Bushes unveil the White House portraits of the former first couple, May, 2012.

People should really put more effort into trying to understand American culture.




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