Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Can a portrait artist play fast and loose with a commission?

Do you think Nelson Shanks has been rather underhand in his portrayal of Bill Clinton?
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.


    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?”


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.]
There's also a reproduction of an article by the Philadelphia Enquirer on the Nelson Shanks website - dated 2001 - titled PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER The secret is out about the latest presidential portrait - but this relates to his doing the painting. It seems even then Mr Shanks liked to disclose supposed secrets.  It also describes the process he uses for his commissions - which involves mannequins.

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.........


  1. Sorry, but t's a bit of a rubbish portrait anyway...

  2. I do believe that adding a "secret" to any painting adds to the interest...but I believe this particular addition was mean-spirited and it was unnecessary to reveal it at any time.

  3. I find it a sad thing that Mr. Shanks chose to completely disrespect a former President of the US in this way. If he truly felt he "couldn't get past" the Lewinsky thing, he should have turned down the commission. In most reporting and comments in the US I have read, the consensus is that he has damaged his own reputation by sharing this story.

  4. Like Maria Bennet Hock I like the idea of some other meaning within a painting but also agree it was mean-spirited and most definitely unnecessary in this case.

    This was not the place for such a thing. He could easily have done his own later with the dress shadow and still got the same attention.

    I usually find these kind of official portraits to be kind of dull, certainly 'safe', anyway.
    Maybe Shanks did too and that was his reason for it.
    He did not need to do this to gain further portrait commissions since he has done others of famous personalities.
    Maybe he had Sargent's "Portrait of Madamne X" in mind which was also a scandal in its day but now is considered one of his best and atypical of portraits.
    At 77 he might NOT be thinking in the present like the rest of us. Is he looking to gain a more prominent place in art history? If so maybe he's had enough of official portraits and this was his chance to finish them with a bang.
    Who knows?

    Yeah, it's not his best portrait. The likeness is a bit odd.
    I do think the shadow you refer to is the shadow of Clintons head wrapping up over the mantel and not the vase. That would make sense for the direction of light. The vase shadow would be off the canvas.
    The sleeve, now that you mentioned it I can't NOT see it. It's too big!

  5. The word integrity comes to mind immediately, surely the relationship between sitter and artist must first be based on trust. It's obvious that in this case if the artist is telling the truth (?) Then he should never have taken the commission.


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