Portraits at a Premium

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

It looks like Congress is getting set to curtail spending on the ultimate “selfie,” oil portraits of its members. This is being reported by the Fox News, just as Americans are recoiling from the “selfie” snapped of President Obama preening with the Prime Minister of Denmark, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, who will, because of Andrea Peyser’s column in the New York Post, forever be known as the “Danish Pastry.” We share the sense that Mr. Obama lost for a moment there with Ms. Thorning-Schmidt the sense of the occasion (the scowl on the First Lady’s face seemed to suggest that she felt he was out of line as well). But regular readers of these columns will know that we’re enthusiasts of painted portraits.

We understand the reluctance to use taxpayers’ money for these paintings. Senators Shaheen of New Hampshire and Coburn of Oklahoma want to limit to $20,000 the amount of taxpayer funds to be spent on each portrait, according to the Fox News, and would “only cover paintings of lawmakers in the line of succession of the presidency.” This seems to limit it to but three members of Congress, Vice President Biden, Speaker Boehner, and the president pro tempore of the Senate, Patrick Leahy. This would seem to restrict the amount of money to be spent to $60,000 in total. “At a time when vital services and programs are facing cuts, we need to be looking at every way we can stop excessive spending practices in Washington,” Mrs. Shaheen said.

Mr. Coburn is being quoted by the Fox News as saying that “[h]ardworking taxpayers shouldn’t foot the bill for lavish official portraits, especially when government officials spend more on paintings of themselves than some Americans make in a year.” It quotes the American Broadcasting Company as reporting earlier this year that the Obama administration spent “nearly $400,000 on paintings of officials in just a two-year-period.” It quoted the Washington Post as reporting “each portrait can sometimes cost over $40,000.” It says the Shaheen-Coburn bill would allow “other funds” to be used to pay for portraits “after the taxpayer funds were exhausted.”

The institutional enthusiasm of the Sun for painted (and sculpted) portraits has often been marked. We’ve written — in “Hanging George Bush” — about the wonderful event President Obama hosted for the vernissage at the White House of the portraits of President George W. Bush and Mrs. Bush, whose portraits were done by John Howard Sanden. And, in “Framed in Court,” our editor called for a new set of portraits to be undertaken in respect of our courtrooms. The Sun also gave front-page coverage of the sitting by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor for the jubilee of the Painting Group, whose master portrait painters had been meeting weekly in Greenwich Village or nearby for 50 years.

So it strikes us that the Shaheen-Coburn bill presents an opportunity for a national effort — at no cost to the taxpayers — to rally support for our best portrait artists to come in to capture our historic figures on canvas. This could be kicked off by President Obama or by any one of the great private art patrons in the country. Or all of them. The thing about great portrait paintings is that they are a kind of opposite of the selfie. The time it takes to paint them, the mixture of the subject and the artist’s vision, the nature of painting itself, these combine to draw out the essence of a sitter, to defeat time, to immortalize. Worth the effort in these transient times.

The New York Sun

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