Until yesterday I had only seen presidents as historical figures, as names in textbooks with listings of accomplishments or failures. History could judge them to be good or bad presidents but never really considered their humanity. Neither had I. But then I find myself in the National Portrait Gallery, wandering around when I look up at a portrait of Dwight D. Eisenhower. The care of detail was astonishing–looking at this life-sized portrait, I felt like I was looking at an actual person. And I had never really considered a president like that, you know, as a person. A vulnerable and flawed person, who’s just like the rest of us, just living in different circumstances. Suddenly I have empathy for the presidents instead of this kind of disconnect from studying the presidents based on their deeds.
I continue to wander about, seeing the portraits in a different light. The wrinkles on their faces, their graying hair, and the color of their eyes strike me. When looking at the portrait of George W Bush, someone remarks “That looks like my dad. Or my uncle! I don’t know, it just reminds me of them.” This comment resonates with me. A president is just a man. A father, an uncle, a brother. A president is a human with responsibility, held under the scrutiny of history and judged by this ambiguous body of America.
It was funny to me how similar these men looked. Many of the early portraits had the same poses; the men were standing formally, unsmiling and stiff, sometimes holding objects symbolic of the power they held. It was interesting that as the portraits became more and more modern, the presidents seemed to relax as their postures became more relaxed. The portrait of George W Bush especially was notable to me because he was the only president not wearing a suit and tie. Instead, his collared shirt was not buttoned to the top. He was sitting comfortably on a couch, smiling. Bill Clinton’s portrait was odd as well. Instead of being a realistic portrait, it was more abstract—when you approached the portrait you could clearly see that it was composed of shapes and colors, only creating the likeness of the president when viewed from far away. The information plaque next to this picture said that although other portraits were created of Clinton, this was the one that he choose to be displayed in this museum. Why? Why would be choose to break tradition this extremely? Why does he want to be seen in a more abstract light than his predecessors and maybe even the presidents to come? Why does it even matter?
Why were there so few women too? I mean, the answer is obvious, there have not been any female presidents. The lack in diversity is still astonishing; for the most part, the National Portrait Gallery consists of paintings of aging white men wearing blue suits, posed in a standing position and looking rather grim. This exhibit was such a stark contrast to the portrait galleries that continue off the end of the Presidents Gallery. Here was an exhibit more representative of the American people. There were paintings of Native Americans, of women, of people struggling for justice. There were paintings of people who were black, Islamic, of different sexual orientations, facing language barriers, facing barriers of justice, struggling. Although the Presidents were mostly posed in positions of power, this messages of this second gallery were much more powerful to me. The Presidents Gallery captures men that have had the opportunity to create influence, the latter galleries capture people who do not have a voice, who seek to influence and have to fight. These people will not be written about in history books. But they’re people too. They are all people; the presidents are the same as the people who do not have that title. The sense of humanity was overwhelming, the bitterness of struggle, the suffering, the joy, the beauty and strife that somehow is captured in lines, in brushstrokes, in ink.
Having created paintings, drawings, and photographs myself, I have the utmost respect for these artists who evoked all these feelings and meanings that come to life beyond the simplicity of materials. The architects of the museum too—I noticed in the Presidents section red carpets associated with regality and the columns evoking the prestige of Ancient Greece and Rome. So many elements came together that made these exhibits seem to have a voice and essentially an argument.
It’s amazing that paint and charcoal and stone can speak to us and make us think and that these inanimate objects can move us to consider our own humanity.