Posted by Ken Spivey
“Picturing The Presidents” is a glimpse into the Presidential Portrait Gallery found in the Smithsonian. A painting of each leader of our nation holds many meanings. The various ways of seeing these portraits are determined by the painter, the one being painted, and the ever changing audience viewing the art. The documentary begins by discussing the portrait of Washington and how he defined how a President was to appear: noble, strong, yet not regal. They contrast this with Clinton’s portrait, which shows the less formal man with rumpled jacket and a tired, earthy stare. This highlights how few people are truly pleased with any presidential portrait; many view the Clinton portrait as too natural, while Washington’s is often criticized as nearly appearing supernatural. The film then explores the relationship between president and artist, and the eventual evolution of the portraitist as propagandist.
This was a wonderfully well done documentary. The narration was respectful, the writing was crisp, and the sparse use of stock footage was tasteful. The stories briefly mentioned between presidents, art aficionados, the press, pundits, and political cartoonists were most interesting. The influence of photographic images upon the evolution of the portraiture, and vice versa, was mildly eye opening. The photography of Lincoln was designed to resemble a noble portrait as opposed to an impromptu glimpse of an individual reality.
“Portraits are an attempt to cheat death,” a patron of the Smithsonian’s Presidential Portrait Gallery most astutely stated, and this well summarizes this documentary. The art helps preserve the personalities and personas of past presidents in a way that only the stroke of a brush could.