I’m just going to have to get used to the idea that photorealism is here to stay. I can’t help but wonder why people insist that art is best the more it looks like a photograph, especially now that everyone carries the equivalent of a Nikon 35mm SLR in their hip pockets. But, well, there it is.
That said, as photographs go, Barack Obama’s official White House portrait by painter Robert McCurdy is a beauty. I can’t make up my mind about the First Lady’s portrait, though. Alice Sprung is good, but she’s no Alice Neel. But give me time. I will warm to it.
Of course, there’s still nothing to compare with John Singer Sargent’s stunning portrait of Theodore Roosevelt, or Aaron Shikler’s brilliantly poignant posthumous rendering of John F. Kennedy. Those remain my favourite Presidential portraits. But the Obama portraits are good, and since both the former First Lady and former President are great human beings, they will imbue their portraits with greatness too. Either way, their unveiling was long overdue.
Let’s face it, because Donald Trump is a petulant child, a small-minded and jealous racist, he couldn’t bear to host the premier of the Obama’s official White House portraits. So the premier of that unveiling had to be delayed until Wednesday, the seventh of September, 2022. Better late than never, I suppose. And let’s face it, we didn’t want Donald Trump around anyway. He would have found a way to make it all about himself.
Representatives for Trump have declined to say why he objected to recognising the Obamas and their portraits. They don’t have to. We already know why. Trump is a little man, and hosting the unveiling of a portrait for anyone who doesn’t support him in his MAGA lunacy simply wasn’t possible for a man that little.
President Obama preferred to maintain a dignified and silent distance regarding Trump’s chaotic and tumultuous single term in office, which ended with the US Capitol under siege from insurrectionists, goaded on by Trump’s lies about election fraud. Meanwhile Trump had falsely accused President Obama of conducting “the biggest political crime in American history,” alluding to the FBI’s Russia investigation into his 2016 political campaign.
The Obamas themselves welcomed back George W Bush and his wife Laura Bush a decade ago to view their own official White House portraits. But, because of Trump’s obstinacy, only now is President Biden able to return the favour on behalf of his old friend. Better late than never.
In any case, I don’t think there should be an official White House portrait for Trump — ever. Trump doesn’t deserve one. Trump is a thief, a liar, a rapist, a murderer and a traitor, and we don’t want to honour or commemorate traitors in paint or any other medium. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.