The Painted Portrait Gets Some Bad Press

Official Portraits Draw Skeptical Gaze
Cost to Taxpayers Varies but Can Reach Nearly $50,000

By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 21, 2008; Page A01

Behind every great man or woman in Washington there is a great painting. As the Bush presidency draws to a close, portrait artists can expect a surge in business from Cabinet secretaries and other elite political appointees who want to preserve their legacies -- and their images -- for posterity.

The Commerce Department, for instance, recently requested artists' bids to paint a likeness of Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez, who has served since early 2005. The contract pays up to $35,000, and Gutierrez gets to select the winning painter, said Rick Dubik, the department's director of administration.

The Coast Guard in August awarded a $12,000 contract for a portrait of Adm. Thad W. Allen, a sharp drop from the $23,500 it spent in 2005 for a likeness of Allen's predecessor as commandant, Adm. Thomas H. Collins. "We have a very strong sense of history and this is a critical part of it, having that formal tie to the past," said Coast Guard spokeswoman Angela Hirsch.

But investing taxpayer money in the time-honored art of official portraiture has become increasingly controversial. In a throwback to the Jimmy Carter era, some fiscal watchdogs and government scholars suggest that high-quality photographs would be a more cost-efficient way to honor departing dignitaries, especially because most portraits are largely inaccessible to the public.

The price of original portraiture ranges widely. In a sampling, The Washington Post examined summaries of 30 portrait contracts, most awarded with no competitive bidding, and found costs ranging from $7,500 to nearly $50,000. Officials say costs sometimes run higher.

At the upper end of the scale, the Defense Department awaits the expected February completion of a $46,790 portrait of controversial former secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. It will grace a Pentagon hallway lined with portraits of his predecessors, as well as one from Rumsfeld's first stint as defense secretary from 1975 to 1977, officials said.

"Thirty to $35,000, believe it or not, is actually cheap," said Dubik, who has overseen portrait commissions for several of the Commerce Department's 34 past secretaries. "Most of the artists out there, if you look at some of them and what their charges are, it's basically anywhere from $50,000 to $75,000."

By comparison, the $25,000 that NASA paid for a portrait of former administrator Daniel S. Goldin and the $29,500 that the Environmental Protection Agency spent for one of the outgoing administrator, Stephen L. Johnson, look like bargains.

"I was under the impression that this amount was low compared to other agencies," EPA spokesman Jonathan Shradar said in an e-mail.

Ryan Alexander, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said agencies should consider snapping photographs of lesser-known officials. She questioned, for example, spending $19,000 for a portrait of former National Cancer Institute director Andrew C. von Eschenbach, now head of the Food and Drug Administration.

"I think most people like the tradition of presidents having their portraits painted," Alexander said. "But where does the line get drawn? Somewhere between the president to Cabinet agency to sub-Cabinet -- somewhere along the way, I'm pretty sure that you'd lose wide public support."

Officials offer many rationales for spending to create original art, a tradition that has encompassed not only Cabinet agencies but also the White House, Congress and Supreme Court.

Ellen G. Miles, curator of painting and sculpture at the National Portrait Gallery, said the museum is researching official portraits for a possible exhibit of such works in 2011.

"It's an old tradition in Western art that goes back to the Renaissance. The idea is to honor and celebrate the person's accomplishments," Miles said.

President George Washington once sat for famed artist Gilbert Stuart, but in modern times lesser-known artists have dominated the world of government portraiture. Simmie Knox gained recognition for painting President Bill Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, but he also created portraits of former energy secretary Hazel R. O'Leary and former transportation secretary Norman Y. Mineta. Steven Polson, who is now painting Rumsfeld, boasts a list that includes former commerce secretary Ronald H. Brown, former EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman, and former energy secretary and U.N. ambassador Bill Richardson.

Joy Thomas of Murray, Ky., who has painted Collins, the former Coast Guard commandant, and former Navy secretary Richard J. Danzig, said she typically needs six to eight months to complete a work. Some portraitists work from photographs, but she prefers painting from life, which requires up to 10 sittings of three hours each.

"The way a reputation is made is by doing official, archival portraits," said Thomas, 50, who said it is still "a mystery to me" how the contracts are awarded. "You've got to get some of those under your belt to be taken seriously."

James Pollard, 54, of Cazenovia, Wis., has twice painted Mineta, once to mark Mineta's tenure as chairman of the House Committee on Public Works and Transportation and the other in honor of his service as secretary of commerce in the Clinton administration.

"You're sort of creating a historical artifact and the better it is, the nicer it is to have around in the future," he said.

Mineta agrees that the public should have more opportunity to view these works because they can be inspirational. He said he sometimes lingered in a hallway lined with portraits to consider his predecessors' accomplishments.

"As I go down the hallway looking at these, I just sort of thank and salute these former secretaries for the job they did," Mineta said. "And, hopefully, as some future secretary is looking at my portrait, either in Transportation or Commerce, they might say, 'Hey, Norm, thanks for the job you did.' "

David Bjelajac, a professor of art history at George Washington University, said portraitists must subordinate their artistic vision to the wishes of the subject. For that reason, top-flight artists normally are not interested in accepting such commissions, he said. Still, he believes photographs offer a poor substitute.

"A photograph has an association with journalistic everyday life, whereas a painted image suggests something that transcends the moment," Bjelajac said.

Still, as cost-cutters weigh options, there is historic precedent. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter branded portraits an "unnecessary luxury" and directed his Cabinet members to use color photographs.

Elliot L. Richardson, commerce secretary under President Gerald R. Ford, went one step further. To commemorate his stint, he unveiled his self-portrait in 1978. "You may ask yourself, 'Why not the best?' " he said at the time. "The answer, of course, is that it's too expensive."

Campbell Brown anchors CNN's "Campbell Brown: No Bias, No Bull." She delivered this commentary during the "Cutting through the Bull" segment of Tuesday night's broadcast (October 22, 2008).

(CNN) -- "Flipping through The Washington Post this morning I came across a fascinating story about an age-old Washington tradition. It is one that kicks into high gear toward the end of any administration: the painting of official portraits.

You might even remember when President and Mrs. Bush invited President and Sen. Clinton to the White House for the unveiling of the Clintons' official portraits.

But what you may not know is that this little perk isn't reserved for presidents. Cabinet secretaries get them too.

So what's the big deal, you say? Well, according to The Washington Post, the costs of these portraits ranges from$7,500 to nearly $50,000.

Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld went high end. The Pentagon, The Post reports, is currently awaiting delivery of Rumsfeld's portrait. Total cost: $46,790. Watch CNN's Campbell Brown make her case »

The Commerce Department is spending $35,000 on a portrait of Secretary Carlos Gutierrez; $25,000 for the former NASA administrator, $29,500 for the outgoing head of the EPA, and the list goes on and on.

I hear what defenders of this practice say: This is for history. A portrait will outlast any photograph.

But come on, in this economy? With the financial crisis we are all facing?

Guys -- take a picture."


The Space Above the Couch said...

Just one point that seems to have been left out: a portrait by a really good artist will appreciate in many fold value and could be seen as an investment... that is unless they are using zinc white pigment with oil. (-: Still these are pretty high priced paintings. Some of the best artists would charge far less. I recently read that people will often invest in tangible things like paintings when the stock market is unstable, and there may be some truth to this.

The Space Above the Couch said...

I'm sorry for putting my foot in my mouth, and feel almost as badly about drawing attention to this with an apology. (Where is an embarrassed emoticon when you need one?) I only just noticed that you use zinc white (I should have known better as the word about problems with the pigment is still getting out.) Collectors should certainly consider your work to be a great investment. However in thin under layers zinc may be less of an issue. There is an example of a Millais in which it has held up well.

Here is the study about zinc white:

Your such a wonderful painter, forgive me for assuming you has already read this. It has been a shock to many artists who thought they were working with the most lightfast and stable pigments. Then again... think about all the rose madder than has faded in masterpieces around the world, and how many oil paintings continue to yellow. We have still been left with something of great value. In some ways there is an aesthetic to aging and history in a work which many people try to replicate. There are those that think the sistine chapel look better before it was cleaned... would the girl in a turban look better to us without the cracking? would we appreciate it any less?

have i taken my foot out of my mouth yet? i'm trying... (-:

My Painting Studio said...

You're right about Zinc White - I have GOT to do a post on this.

I still use it in tiny amounts but am using it less and less.

I stopped using Weber's Permalba years ago because of the Zinc content. However, even Titanium White (all brands that I know of) have Zinc added in small amounts.

Aaaaaaaargh! It is a problem and thanks for bugging me about it.

The Space Above the Couch said...

No thank you.. I have learnt so much from you, and I still feel badly for putting my foot in my mouth. Sometimes i feel a little like brigette jones giving a speech, or the blundering character in lost in Austen who speaks before she thinks... but I meant to harm, and was worried you thought i might be trying to hurt your sales. I'm such an admirer of your work. Funnily enough, it was only after i was struck by your work i realized you shared influences and lived in the same place as Koo Shadler, who has been another inspiration for me... there's something about that light.

It is only because of working in egg tempera that I've started to pay more attention to pigments... it was quite a shock to find out that just because something is carried by a well known manufacturer (eg. alizarin crimson) it is not to be trusted. All the things I didn't learn in art school.

btw. kama pigment will custom mix oil paint... a good way to experiment with many of the earth pigments not often found in tubes. I'm not sure what the prices are like. I also see that natural pigments is also starting to carry a line. I am looking at casein now. I like that you can dump dry pigments directly in the emulsion... and it makes for wonderful, luminous and flexible under paintings. i'm hoping it will help to open up the possibilities with egg tempera. I also think the casein may be a good way to use zinc in under paintings, but it's not safe with liquin.