- - Monday, February 12, 2018


Nobody likes to get his picture took. Vanity, thy name is woman. (Shakespeare’s observation was actually written as “frailty,” but good luck with correcting it now.) Vanity is a curse not restricted to the ladies. You need look no further than the White House for proof of that.

The National Portrait Gallery unveiled portraits of both former President Obama and his first lady Monday, and the reaction was, ummm, mixed. Mr. Obama seemed to like his, the first lady not so much, though she recovered from her first look at it and said more or less nice things later.

When a sheet was dropped covering the painting by Amy Sherald, a Baltimore painting known for “incorporating social justice” in her work, however that might be done, Mrs. Obama looked startled. She quickly recovered and beamed a few lady-like beams. “I was a little overwhelmed, to say the least,” she said later. Others thought she looked a little underwhelmed.

The former president, on the other hand, was more enthusiastic about his likeness, painted by Kehinde Wiley. “How about that?” he exclaimed as the covering sheet was dropped. “I tried to negotiate less gray hair and Kehinde’s artistic integrity would not allow him to do what I asked. I tried to negotiate smaller ears. Struck out on that as well.”

Both artists are black, though neither is the first black artist to officially portray a president. Simmie Knox was the first, painting the official version of Bill Clinton. Nor is Mr. Obama the first president whose features were negotiated, or attempted to be negotiated. Jackie Kennedy persuaded Aaron Shikler to change his posthumous likeness of John F. Kennedy. She didn’t like the pensive president that Mr. Shikler first showed her in sketches. She wanted “a different image from the way everybody else makes him look. I’m tired of that image.” She liked the later version, which she regarded as “somber” but not “pensive.”

Theodore Roosevelt didn’t like his portrait by the painter Theobold Chartran in 1902. He hated it, and so did his family. They called it “the mewing cat.” Mr. Roosevelt put it in a remote corner of the White House. Then he hired John Singer Sargent to paint a more manly version.

Mr. Sargent followed the president around the White House, making sketches, hoping to find the right setting. With thinning patience on both sides, the president finally told the artist that “you don’t have a clue about what you want.” Mr. Sargent replied that the president didn’t know what an artist needed for a portrait. The president, ascending a staircase, turned and with fierce expression angrily demanded, “Don’t I?”

Mr. Sargent loved the president’s fierce look, and quickly sketched it. That was the face he painted. The president loved it.

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