At the end of each presidency, the National Portrait Gallery works with White House staff to commission a portrait of the president and first lady.
In a way, the tradition of having a presidential portrait completed began with Stuart Gilbert’s iconic Lansdowne portrait of George Washington. During Washington’s time, portraits and engravings of the president were used to disseminate his likeness all around the country and the world, said Brandon Fortune, the chief curator of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
“So building on that first masterpiece by Gilbert Stuart, we began to assemble a collection of presidents in the 1960s before the museum even opened to the public,” Fortune added.
In the 19th century, there wasn’t really a process for making sure a presidential portrait was made because there was no museum necessarily collecting portraits.
It wasn’t until the early 1990s, beginning with former President George H.W. Bush, that the museum began commissioning portraits of the presidents.
Portraits after Bush senior were all paid for with private funds from donors. “There’s an enormous range of cost for any portrait,” she said. “From just a few 100 dollars to perhaps many hundreds of thousands.”
The process of commissioning a portrait
Only two complete collections of presidential portraits exist. One collection is held by the White House and the other is displayed for the public at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.
At the end of a president’s term in office, the National Portrait Gallery works with White House staff to commission a portrait of the outgoing president.
Here’s how the process works:
“At times both the White House and the portrait gallery will submit portfolios on a number of different artists whose approaches vary for the president and first lady to choose from,” Fortune said.
But sometimes, the president and first lady already have an artist in mind. The National Portrait Gallery is currently working to identify artists to complete portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama.
The White House commissions separate portraits of the president and first lady. The cost of those portraits is underwritten by the White House Historical Association.
“Before the formation of the Committee for the Preservation of the White House in 1964 there was no established organization in charge of presidential portraits,” explained Lara Kline, of the White House Historical Association.
“They were commissioned on a piecemeal basis and it was not really until the administrations after the Civil War that the display of former presidents and first ladies becomes an established White House tradition.”
One president really didn’t like his portrait
A mid-1960s portrait of President Lyndon B. Johnson did not go over well with the Commander in Chief. Johnson even knew the artist, Peter Hurd.
“But after it was finished he declared publicly that it was the ugliest thing he’d ever seen,” Fortune explained. “And the portrait, which was meant to be for the White House, was returned to the artist.”
Eventually, the portrait was acquired by the National Portrait Gallery and the president agreed that it could be displayed after he left office — and now it’s still on the walls today.
Portrait of the president-elect
Following tradition, the National Portrait Gallery displays a portrait of the incoming president during the inaugural month.
Fortune said the gallery chose Michael O’Brien’s 1989 portrait of President-elect Donald Trump, which also served as the cover of his book “Surviving at the Top.”
Fortune explained that it is one of the gallery’s many portraits of Trump because of his prominence in business in the country.
Trump’s portrait will go on display at the National Portrait Gallery on Jan. 13, signaling the change of administrations.
For many, it may be surprising that the art and tradition of portraiture, at least in this sense, has survived the age of the selfie.
But Fortune said she believes our selfie culture has only “enhanced our appreciation of work that artists make.”
“I think that this phenomenon of the selfie has really made people aware of the idea of making a portrait, of posing for a portrait, making a portrait of others, and I think that has expanded the relevance of portraits made by artists,” she explained.
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