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.