WASHINGTON — When the National Portrait Gallery reopened for visitors last Friday, it did so with an addition to its famed exhibition of presidential portraits. There, in the second floor gallery, joining the likes of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, was Donald Trump, scowling from behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office.
Just as there are customs associated with the presidency, post-presidential life comes with its own set of expectations and privileges. One of them is the creation of a presidential library. Another is a presidential portrait. And while no plans for a Trump library have been announced, the portrait now on public display is a sign that Trump is entering the pantheon of presidents past, even as he considers a 2024 presidential run.
Trump joins iconic examples of presidential portraiture like Gilbert Stuart’s 1796 painting of George Washington and Elaine de Kooning’s abstracted view of John F. Kennedy, which reflects both the tumult and promise of the 1960s. Trump’s portrait, however, is a photograph, one taken by Pari Dukovic for Time magazine in 2019.
A traditional portrait, with oil paint on canvas, is “currently moving forward,” Smithsonian Institution spokesperson Brendan Kelly told Yahoo News. “We approached the president and Mrs. Trump after the 2020 election and are currently in conversations with them.”
Dukovic’s photo shows Trump looking the part of the chief executive, the role he played on both television (on NBC’s “The Apprentice”) and in real life. One hand is laid flat on the Resolute Desk, first used by Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880; the other is on the armrest of his leather chair. The president looks directly into the camera, eyes narrowed and lips pursed. His suit jacket is buttoned. His tie is red.
The chair is partly turned away from the desk, suggesting that Trump is about to rise. Behind him the portraits of Andrew Jackson and Benjamin Franklin are visible. Trump often cited Jackson, a fellow populist, as a role model for his own presidency.
A savvy purveyor of image making, Trump has always sought to convey the impression of authority and aptitude. Dukovic captures that desire without commenting on it. Trump has power, the photo suggests, but that power is isolating. The Oval Office radiates history, but also solitude (Trump preferred the residence, where he could watch television and make phone calls in relative peace).
Trump looks “pallid and grim” in the photograph, said Paul Staiti, an expert on presidential portraits who teaches at Mount Holyoke College and has authored “Of Arms and Artists,” a book about how painters saw the American Revolution. “I imagine the upcoming official portrait painting, however, will likely be grandiose. Trump will have lots of control; it will be his vision of himself. I am expecting something large, flattering and shiny,” Staiti told Yahoo News.
Trump will also have say over the wall text, which at present deals frankly with his legacy, noting the record number of judges he appointed but also acknowledging that he was impeached twice by the House of Representatives. His refusal to concede the election of Nov. 3, 2020, the text says, led “a mob of his supporters” to storm and vandalize the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
The photograph of Trump is displayed across the room from a portrait of Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights leader and House member who died last year — positioning that Staiti says “invites heated conversation.” In 2017, Lewis said he did not believe Trump was the “legitimate” leader of the nation. When he died three years later, Trump showed little sympathy. “He didn’t come to my inauguration,” he said of Lewis.
“Trump’s neighbor to the right is, pointedly, Richard Nixon,” Staiti said. Trump’s critics frequently compared him to Nixon, a Republican who resigned from office amid the Watergate scandal and looming impeachment.
The Trump photograph hangs on a freestanding partition, the opposite side of which belongs to Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of Barack Obama, whom Trump succeeded in the Oval Office, having disparaged his record relentlessly during the 2016 presidential campaign. Before that, Trump had promulgated the discredited conspiracy theory that Obama was a Muslim born outside the United States.
Kelly, the Smithsonian spokesman, said that the last two presidents are always placed back-to-back and that the juxtaposition of Lewis and Trump was not intentional. Still, some are bound to see symbolism in a president whose opponents said he excused or even gave license to white supremacy facing a civil rights legend on one side and the nation’s first Black president on the other.
Although attendance figures are not available, Kelly said tickets to the museum are booked for weeks to come (those tickets are free but need to be reserved in advance). “The America’s Presidents gallery has always been a must-do for visitors,” he said. Portraits of the Obamas attracted a high degree of public attention when they were unveiled in 2018.
Just how much attention Trump will attract is difficult to say, especially since access to the museum will be restricted for some time. But as with the Trump presidency itself, the portrait is bound to attract controversy. “I deliberately averted my eyes,” one visitor over the weekend told the Guardian.
Cover photo thumbnail: Win McNamee/Getty Images
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