Is it ever OK for a portrait artist to undermine your client or subject?
The big art news story today is that a portrait painted by Nelson Shanks of Bill Clinton contains, according to Shanks, a hidden allusion to the Monica Lewinsky affair.
This is the portrait - painted in 2005 - which now forms part of the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in the USA (I'm sure they'll be thinking twice about accepting another portrait by Shanks!)
It's actually impossible to get a link to the page which is a rather odd way for a museum website to behave. However if you want to take a closer look at it go to the National Portrait Gallery's Portal to American Portraits then use the quick search and the search term "Shanks Clinton" to generate the portrait in question.
Once you've got it you can see an enlarged image - although the best images would appear to be in all today's papers!
Here are just some of the 450+ newspaper reports about it. The various comments make fascinating reading. If Mr Shanks thought that this 'reveal' would enhance his reputation it seems he is sadly mistaken
|The Guardian article about this debacle.|
- The Guardian
I wonder what would happen if an artist revealed that in an official portrait of George W Bush, he painted a dark shadow representing the Iraq war.
Actually I know what would happen. Fox News would lead a conservative uproar that condemned this insidious piece of unpatriotic propaganda. I can hear them now.
“Who runs the National Portrait Gallery – Isis?”
- The Telegraph - Official Bill Clinton portrait has secret reference to Monica Lewinsky
- Daily Mail - Artist claims he put reference to Monica Lewinsky's infamous blue dress in Bill Clinton painting that hangs in National Portrait Gallery
- Philly.com - Painter says he included Monica Lewinsky's dress in Bill Clinton portrait - this takes the form of an interview and I've included an extract below. I think this might be the article which prompted all the others.
Q: Who did you find was the hardest to capture?
Clinton was hard. I'll tell you why. The reality is he's probably the most famous liar of all time. He and his administration did some very good things, of course, but I could never get this Monica thing completely out of my mind and it is subtly incorporated in the painting.
If you look at the left-hand side of it there's a mantel in the Oval Office and I put a shadow coming into the painting and it does two things. It actually literally represents a shadow from a blue dress that I had on a mannequin, that I had there while I was painting it, but not when he was there. It is also a bit of a metaphor in that it represents a shadow on the office he held, or on him.
And so the Clintons hate the portrait. They want it removed from the National Portrait Gallery. They're putting a lot of pressure on them. [Reached by phone Thursday, a spokeswoman from the National Portrait Gallery denied that.]
- Washington Times - Philadelphia artist Nelson Shanks included Monica Lewinsky’s dress in Clinton’s official portrait
- People Magazine - Bill Clinton Portrait Contains Hidden Monica Lewinsky Allusion, Artist Nelson Shanks Reveals
- USA Today - Bill Clinton portrait may include Lewinsky reference. This includes some photographs of the painting in progress and the approach used by the artist.
- Huffington Post - Bill Clinton's Portrait Includes A Nod To Monica Lewinsky, Painter Says
This is a blog post on Lines and Colors about Nelson Shanks and a painting demonstration he gave, It's as good as anything for describing his background and achievements.
My personal view is he may have played a trick but he'd have done better if he'd focused his efforts on trying to paint a better portrait of the President.
- I don't think it's very good. I don't think it captures a good likeness of Clinton.
- Moreover it also incorporates what looks like "a very basic error" (as shadows which conflict with reality and each other are now known in the UK following the recent pronouncement of Daphne Todd).
- Note the shadow associated with the vase on the right is completely different to all other shadows.
- Plus it's missing from the actual replica of the White House set up in his studio - see the pics in the USA Today article.
- Also how Clinton's left arm seems to be inside a jacket arm designed for the Incredible Hulk!
One is left wondering what on earth possessed Shanks to behave as he did in the first place. What's even more puzzling is what he hopes to gain by revealing it now.
I can't help thinking political leanings were involved. Maybe he sought to embarrass Hilary in the run-up to the next election. It's certainly a very mean and disrespectful way to behave.
Maybe he just likes attention? Maybe he just wanted to show off and blabbed too much. He won't be the first person who lives to regret saying more than he should.
So - will anybody be queuing up to be painted by Nelson Shanks in future? I suspect it will only be those of a certain political affiliation - and moreover those who don't have any shadow of 'a stain on their character'.
After all who needs a portrait artist stabbing them in the back?
Hopefully we'll also see the National Portrait Gallery exercise rather more scrutiny over unexplained and apparently incorrect shadows in future.........