June 9th, 2012 - 07:18 AM
John Howard Sanden, who painted the official portrait of George W. Bush, was hardly mentioned in news coverage of the unveiling at the White House. President Obama hosted the event, and it was primarily a media show to see how the two presidents would react in the same room with one another.
The Bush family chose Sanden because he is considered by many to be the country’s most eminent portrait artist, as well as being a close associate of Billy Graham. In addition, he is very handsome, has a pleasant manner, is meticulous, works clean and orderly, and can be trusted to produce a realistic and suitable work of art. And it didn’t hurt to have a handsome portrait of Jesus in his oeuvre.
I do not think the painting is a significant work of art, even though it begs attention. One would expect a more refined expression on the face of the president, but then, Bush was difficult to characterize or pin down, being a very successful politician. A great representation of his overconfident personality appears in the portrait printed on the cover of Time magazine, December 27, 2004.
The painting depicts Bush standing in the Oval Office with his right hand on the back of an antique armchair embroidered with an official seal. He seems to reach out for help, perhaps to balance himself. Over his right shoulder hangs a 1929 western painting, A Charge to Keep, by William Koerner. This is a fitting prop, for it is Bush’s favorite painting. On his left is a bookcase with three sets of books arranged by size and color, symbolic of his lack of erudition. But the president looks as he does today, not ten years ago when he actually stood tall as Commander in Chief fighting the war on terror. Does this convey Sanden’s battle with age also, the sad things that happens to handsomeness over time, the one thing they shared in common? Bush was born in 1946, Sanden in 1935.
Notice that Bush's left eye is larger than the right and appears to be looking in a different direction. (Search Google images for larger picture.) Is this artistic license or just the result of faulty vision (artist's and/or sitter's)? I doubt that the inspiration for this was Manet's Olympia, which has an entirely different purpose and meaning. It looks weird and not appropriate for this one-dimensional man.
The painting has all the elements of portraiture that Sanden professes. The only thing that seems odd is Bush’s face. It is not fresh and Sanden’s attempt at “premier coup” failed. I do not think this was intentional, since he has never to my knowledge attempted anything other than courtly portraits. But there is a chance that he was influenced by Freud’s portrait of Queen Elizabeth. (See my blog, Portrait of Queen Elizabeth…). If the portrait is an interpersonal statement between artist and subject, as I think Freud’s is, then maybe this painting has a meaning that reaches beyond the limits of the canvas. Otherwise, it is a blunder and we citizens didn’t get our money’s worth.
It is unfortunate that after such a distinguished career, Sanden should get the most prized commission of all and be unable to meet his own standard. Maybe it’s the subject, a president who ranks lowest in public opinion, a president who deserves a portrait just like himself.
It should be interesting to see who paints Obama's presidential portrait. Probably a con artist just like himself.