Presidential Art

The George W. Bush official portrait.


in Archive


He’s sitting with wide-open legs on the very edge of a comfy couch. His eyes twinkle, as usual, and a smile lights up his face, getting playful as it stretches over to the right where it would sometimes turn into a smirk. No smirk here, though. George W. Bush looks genuinely happy, confident, at ease with himself.


The portrait is by Robert Anderson, a portrait painter more or less by trade and, as it happens, a classmate of Bush’s from Yale. George W looked at the work of a number of painters and eventually settled on Anderson as the man to do the official portrait, the one that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian along with the other presidential portraits.

That can’t be serious, I thought to myself when I turned a corner at the Gallery and saw the portrait. The mundane kitsch of the thing was shocking. There are standards. By God there are standards. Aren’t there? A vase of flowers sits on the table of a dining room set behind him. The set is more middlebrow than anything you could find even at a mainstream outfit like IKEA. It is a set you’d find, I suppose, at Jennifer Convertibles. The whole scene is resolutely suburban. Aggressively suburban. The portrait is, essentially, a Sears portrait. Hanging at The National Portrait Gallery, not too far from where Elaine de Kooning’s Modernist rendering of JFK can be found, is a Sears portrait of the 43rd President of the United States of America.

The more I looked at it, the more my admiration grew. Say what you like about George W. Bush, but that dummy is no dummy. Any other painting, any other style, any other approach would have been ridiculous. But how do you ridicule a Sears portrait that really and truly presents itself as nothing other than a Sears portrait? It should have been more classical, you could protest. It should have been more in line with contemporary trends in the arts. Oh, really?

I like how clean his shirt is, how crisp are the lines running up the right arm that Bush rests with such infinite comfort on his leg. The ridge of that crease on that brilliantly ironed light blue shirt is a promise to us all. The ridge of fabric says this: Certain things exist with certainty. But that fact is no big deal, either. The rumbly bumbly wrinkles on the left arm of the shirt remind us of that, too. Certain things can be certain, but it’s no big deal.

George W. is sitting right on the edge of that couch because he’s got to go soon. He doesn’t care to spend much of his time, or ours, on a frivolity like portrait-sitting. Then again, he’s the President, and he understands. Part of his job is to do things like sit for the portrait. He brings his hands together with intertwined fingers. The effect is of a circle, a circle of himself. The yang is the right curve of the circle, the right arm with the master crease, awash in light. The rumbly bumbly left arm is the yin, dark and a little passive. The shadows on the smaller circle of his face are the mirror image of the bigger arm circle. It is all so balanced, so complete. In retrospect, it makes the de Kooning portrait of JFK look rather unhinged. Who really cares about all this vanity anyway, George W. Bush is asking us. I’m a perfect circle, but who really cares? I’ve got to go soon. • 9 November 2010