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.