I am a proud alumnus of that not infrequently maligned but nevertheless distinguished school of portrait painters. It is a fellowship that ranges from Rembrandt to Van Gogh to Picasso, to my personal favorite, Alice Neel (1900-1984). Portrait painters are occasionally disdained with the modifying adjective “mere,” but we suspect that our detractors are jealous. Most of them can’t do likenesses. The creation of the self-portrait — the original “selfie” — began in the High Renaissance and includes a sketch by Rafael as a youth, Durer as Jesus and Leonardo in red chalk as an old man. You can find Michelangelo’s selfie in the Sistine Chapel as the skin of St. Bartholomew in The Last Judgment. Portraiture is a venerable, old profession.
The uniquely American expression of that venerable tradition has been enshrined in the presidency from its infancy. From George Washington by Gilbert Stuart to Theodore Roosevelt by the incomparable John Singer Sargent to the haunting, posthumous rendering of John F. Kennedy by Aaron Shikler, presidential portraiture has become a vital part of a vital American tradition.
For the presidency, portraiture has remained a sacred island of nonpartisan celebration, a decades-old tradition where a first-term president hosts an unveiling ceremony in the East Room of the White House for his predecessor. When it came Barack Obama’s turn to unveil George W. Bush’s official portrait, Obama graciously observed, “We may have our differences politically, but the presidency transcends those differences.” Obama and Bush have since become fast and old friends.
Donald Trump has destroyed all that, of course. I add the words, “of course,” because Trump is not a builder, he is a destroyer, so of course he is going to destroy this sacred tradition like he does everything he touches. Trump’s “achievements” include the dismantling much of the work of his predecessor, a distinguished, brilliant, well-educated and much beloved black man, while Trump simultaneously takes credit for the fruits of Obama’s restoration of the recession-era economy.
So this familiar ritual of officially presenting the portrait of the sitting president’s predecessor won’t happen, according to people familiar with the matter. Should Trump win a second term in November, it will be 2025 before Obama sees his portrait displayed with every other U.S. president since George Washington. I, for one, am glad. The child rapist and mass murderer Donald Trump has disfigured enough American traditions as it is, from Memorial Day to the Fourth of July, he should keep his blood-stained fingers off of the sacred rite of rendering the American President in paint. And since Trump will almost certainly go to prison as soon as he is safely out of office, I think it would be unseemly to commission the official presidential portrait of a convicted criminal anywhere in the People’s House. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.