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Presidential Portraits that Pop

February 12, 2018 in History

By Madison Horne

(Credit: Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/Sipa/AP Photo)

It may be the age of the photo selfie, but with the recent unveiling of the presidential portrait of Barack Obama at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, Americans are again reminded that official renderings of our top leaders tend to come in the most traditional of forms: oil paintings on canvas, displayed inside a fancy frame.

As a group, the 44 images to date hew pretty closely to the venerable tradition of power portraits—think kings and popes through the ages. There are the obligatory somber backdrops, the stiff, dignified poses and occasional props, like a globe, a book or some important-looking papers. Only a handful of artists have broken from such traditional stylings. And a few have embedded pointed symbolism. Not all presidents were happy with the results.

Below, the back stories to some of the most striking presidential portraits:


(Credit: Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/Sipa/AP Photo)

Barack Obama

When choosing artists to paint their portraits, President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle expressed the importance of having African-American painters create the images. Mr. Obama chose painter Kehinde Wiley, known for stylized portraits that address the politics of race, saying he admired the “degree to which [the paintings] challenge our conventional views of power and privilege.” Wiley says the lush, leafy background imagery he chose for the portrait was a way of symbolically “charting [Obama’s] path on Earth,” including African blue lilies for Kenya, for his father’s heritage; jasmine for Hawaii, where the former president was born; and chrysanthemums, the official flower of Chicago.

(Credit: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

John F. Kennedy 

Prior to the unveiling of Kehinde Wiley’s canvas of Barack Obama, this image of President Kennedy, painted by abstract artist Elaine de Kooning, was arguably the most modernist rendering of all the official presidential portraits. Kennedy sat for the portrait in his Palm Beach estate in December 1962, a location reflected in the sunny shades of yellow, aqua and green.

(Credit: Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP Photo)
(Credit: Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP Photo)

Bill Clinton

While artist Nelson Shanks was no stranger to portraying important public figures—including royalty, world leaders and popes—his portrait of President Bill Clinton may be his most talked-about. The symbolism he chose, while visually subtle, spoke volumes. The artist said in a 2015 interview that he painted a shadow along the mantle symbolizing the infamous …read more


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