Picking on Portrait Artists

17 Nov 2008

Christopher Lee, a staff writer for The Washington Post, wrote an article titled “Official Portraits Draw Skeptical Gaze” for the October 21, 2008 edition of the newspaper that was quickly picked up by CNN and other news organizations. He criticized the fact that outgoing officials of the Bush administration and retiring government officials are commissioning portraits as the country falls into a deep recession. The article quotes Ellen G. Miles, the curator of painting and sculpture at the National Portrait Gallery, who points out that these commissions are part of “an old tradition in Western art that goes back to the Renaissance;” but Lee suggests that officials might contract a cheaper alternative, such as high-quality photographs, especially because “top-flight artists normally are not interested in accepting such commissions.”

Lee picks on portrait artists because they will be painting some of the most unpopular politicians in recent history, not because their services aren’t valued. For example, he complains about the $46,790 portrait of “controversial former secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld,” leaving me to believe he is more upset by the commemoration of Rumsfeld’s tenure as secretary of defense than he is by the price of the portrait. If Lee does think that saving a few dollars by commissioning photographs will relieve the multibillion dollar financial crises, he is naïve, and he doesn’t understand that almost half the official portraits will be paid for by private individuals or by the retiring officials, not by the taxpaying public.

Journalists often look for easy targets because their audience is likely to agree with them; but in this case the criticism of portrait artists is misinformed and unfair, and it minimizes the talent and skill the painters bring to their historic mission. Fortunately, the criticism hasn’t had any measurable influence on the retiring politicians or other distinguished individuals considering a portrait commission. Jasmine Sewell, the director of Portraits, Inc., in New York City, reports that although she has received a flood of messages from offended artists, not a single client has mentioned the controversy.

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Lou Marek wrote
on 17 Nov 2008 8:53 PM

No comment - ,except it is a tempest in a teapot, to quote another journalist from a temptuos time.

Kells L. wrote
on 18 Nov 2008 5:57 AM

Sometimes we forget whos' Ox it is that gets gored (no pun  intented)!

laurawg wrote
on 10 Dec 2008 7:26 AM

"painting some of the most unpopular politicians in recent history"... You've got that right - lol.  Interesting article - thanks.

laurawg wrote
on 10 Dec 2008 7:44 AM

I was wondering... how many government officials have their portraits painted?  You mentioned "almost half the official portraits will be paid for by private individuals or by the retiring officials, not by the taxpaying public", but that still leaves over half paid by tax payers...

sdoherty wrote
on 10 Dec 2008 9:06 AM

Calvin Goodman, the author of "Art Marketing Handbook' and a well respected art consultant in Los Angeles, wrote the following article for the Portrait Society of America's newsletter that is included in "International Artist" magazine. You can contact Calvin at: geeteebee@roadrunner.com

For use in the International Artist or the Portrait Society newsletter

       Last October, The Washington Post carried a feature story which I found rather misleading. The lead read: "Official Portraits Draw Skeptical Gaze." The sub head read "Cost to Taxpayers Varies But Can Reach Nearly $50,000." The author of the article claims that he examined 30 government portrait contracts, "most awarded without competitive bidding," one paying $46,790 while others ranged from $7,500 to $50,000. He seems to have made no effort to calculate the average cost of these portraits and he totally avoids comment regarding the well known fact that the costs of portraits of public figures are often provided not with taxpayer funds but with donations from supporters and admirers.

       I was particularly struck by the comments of the only "skeptic" quoted in the article, Ms Ryan Alexander who heads Taxpayers for Common Sense, a well known non profit group noted for its criticism of major pork barrel programs such as the infamous "bridge to nowhere."She is quoted as saying that the $19,000 cost of the recent contract for a portrait of the retiring director of the National Cancer Institute might have been better served by "snapping a photo .for this and other lesser-known officials." This expressed attitude led me to contact Ms Alexander, who made it clear the she had not been the initiator of the article and was unaware of this scientist’s importance. She explained that she knew well the difference between a professional portrait photograph and a snapshot in quality and cost. Of course there are politicians who may not be worthy of an imitation gold watch on retirement or even a warm handshake, but I suspect that the cancer research man who has now gone on to head the Federal Drug Administration may well be worthy of the $19,000 portrait and the sincere appreciation of the taxpayers.

       The idea of honoring important public officials with paintings and sculptures dates back to Benjamin Franklin, who noted the practice during his residence in Paris at the time of the American Revolution and later brought the sculptor Houdon to America to provide the busts of Washington with which every child is familiar.

       Of course, we understand that the price we may wish to pay for an honorific portrait should vary with the importance of the honoree as well as the talent and reputation of the artist, to say nothing of the demand for that artist’s work Our finest artists get all the work they can handle at prices that may exceed those of many other excellent men and women, A fair number of artists get more for their non portrait art works than they command for their portrait commissions.

I regret that Ms Alexander, who is an admirable guardian of the public purse, was apparently coaxed into suggesting that there are federal agencies guilty of spending a lot more than they should honoring their retirees. To be sure, most of our agencies waste money, but very little is devoted to art of any sort