Historically it was essential that a sovereign commissioned a portrait of himself in order to leave a positive legacy. Before the dawn of the modern camera, there were limited ways for a monarch’s greatness to be remembered, his two options primarily being the accounts of others and a “successful portrait.” However, a ruler was not really able to control how others wrote about him, especially after death. In fact, if during life he truly oppressed the historians, it made it all the more likely that his portrayal would be negative. Out of options on this front, the monarch was compelled to focus his efforts on having a “successful portrait” that emphasized his regal traits and his honor effectively. Despite the fact that the necessity of the portrait has been eliminated by the development of modern technology, many leaders still elect to have a painting of themselves made. Even the American presidents, whose country is too young to have a tradition of monarchs commissioning portraits, had paintings made of themselves. Upon first inspection, especially in the case of the Americans, the practice seems exceedingly antiquated and unnecessary; yet, when one looks deeper, one sees that presidential portraiture is completely sensible in that it is merely an exercise of epideictic rhetoric.
However, there appears a serious conflict if one wishes to label the presidential portraits as epideictic. If epideictic rhetoric is a harkening back to time-honored values, then in the case of the first president, what values were his painting exactly harkening too? Surely it was not praising any of the traditional American precepts that are common place today, because at this point in America’s history she had not been a nation long enough to have values to call her own. Does this mean that the early presidential portraits are not epideictic but the later ones are? This alternative is simply impossible because the newer presidential paintings were clearly inspired by the original ones as seen in the similar posture, backgrounds, and hand poses in the Lansdowne, Cooper, Le Clear, and Benziger portraits. In the portraits, most of the figures’ bodies were shown, so that they could exude an air of power as they looked down on the viewer. They are portrayed with their hands held in a manner more reminiscent of a King Henry or a Bonaparte rather than a democratically elected president. The newer portraits echo the older ones both rhetorically and stylistically. The museum itself has Doric pillars that remind one of Ancient Greece at the height of her power. There is too much that is similar between these paintings for there to be different values at play here.
The American presidents were trying to tap into that cultural function of regal portraiture that is found in older nations. The reason why George Washington wanted to call the image of kings to the minds of people who viewed the portraits was because when America was a fledgling nation, Washington needed to legitimize himself as a ruler to the other countries. The more modern presidents echoed Washington’s painting in order to associate this sentiment of legitimization with themselves. This collective reminiscence of strong rulers goes beyond American values to something that is found across all cultures and times. The idea of a dominating leader-figure has a profoundly human aspect to it. For as long as bands of hunter-gathers assembled in order to become more formidable, there has always been a person who has stood above everyone else as the noble and regal commander. This appeal to the value of the strong ruler that is found in the presidential portraits is the essence of that which is epideictic.
In summary, monarchs throughout history had used the portrait as a rhetorical tool to substantiate their kingliness. Washington attempted to associate with these kings through his painting to legitimize himself as a ruler. The later presidents followed Washington because they wished to utilize the validity that Washington established for himself through his portrait. Ultimately, this act is epideictic, not because its honoring American values, but rather its celebration of the much more ancient value of the strong leader-figure: an aspect proudly integral to the human condition.