Bill Clinton’s portrait hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. Today the artist who painted the portrait, which depicts Clinton with hand on hip standing in front of a fireplace, said that he specifically painted a shadow of a blue dress on the fireplace in the portrait as a reference to the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The artist, Nelson Shanks, said the shadow was a metaphor because the scandal cast a shadow on both the man and his presidency.
I don’t think the portrait of Clinton is a particularly good likeness, but I don’t have a problem with the artist including a reference to the Lewinsky incident in it. For as long as artists have painted portraits, they have tried to reveal something about the character of their subjects. Historical portraits often included symbols, messages, and other information. Sometimes the depiction and symbolism is flattering, sometimes it isn’t.
When an artist is asked to paint a significant political figure, whether it’s a king, a pope, or a president, the artist inevitably will bring some of his views about the subject to bear. In really good portraits, the artist’s perspective comes through loud and clear and helps to capture and define the figure and put him into some meaningful context. Shanks’ portrait doesn’t meet that standard, in part because the reference to the Lewinsky scandal in the painting is so obscure that the artist has to explain it and most people who look at the portrait won’t catch the reference, anyway. They’ll just see an awkwardly posed guy in front of a fireplace.
From Alaska comes the story of Madera, a blind 11-year-old Labrador retriever who wandered away from her home and became lost during a cold snap, when temperatures reached 40 below zero. Her owners searched for two weeks and had given up hope when Madera was found by a passerby, 14 pounds lighter but otherwise okay.
You can find examples of the extraordinary human-canine bond, like the search for the blind, aged Madera in dangerously cold temperatures, virtually every day. We saw it in our neighborhood recently when we walked outside after a recent snowfall and saw a couple pulling an obviously hobbled and sickly white-muzzled dog down the street on a makeshift sled. They explained that their dog loved the snow and they wanted to let him experience it, even if he couldn’t romp around like he used to. So they created the carrier and were struggling to steer the dog down the snow-covered street, one pushing and one pulling. It’s not exactly how most people would want to spend their Saturday, but it’s the kind of thing dog owners do.
In other instances, the bond is reflected in the expenses the owner is willing to endure for surgeries, complicated treatments, special foods, or drug therapies for sick dogs. Last year, Americans spent almost $56 billion on their pets, which included more than $14 billion for veterinary care. Options that weren’t even be considered in the past — like organ transplants, joints replacements and other high-end surgeries, pet health insurance, and even hospice care — are now commonplace and growing parts of the economy. How many of your friends have told you recently about extraordinary steps they have taken to enjoy a few more years with their beloved dog?
DNA studies indicate that dogs became domesticated between 18,000 and 32,000 years ago — so recently that the genetic makeups of dogs and wolves are extremely similar. Fossil evidence reveals that the first dogs were companions of hunter-gatherers — which probably explains why most dogs have a taste for human food scraps. The human and canine species share a long common history, and that history has created a deep bond that seems to grow stronger with each passing year.