Does this make me look like a president? Trump’s image in portraiture

Donald Trump is notoriously fastidious when it comes to his portraits. Two works that both had antipodal receptions come to mind when I think of the television personality-turned-politician. The first one is Andy Thomas’ The Republican Club, which depicts a scene of imagined camaraderie between the past Republican presidents Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, both Bushes and Lincoln, with whom Trump (at the painting’s compositional incidence) shares a joke.

Hanging in the Oval Office, the portrait is a favourite of Trump’s, who once stated that he doesn’t like most images of himself. The current president is pictured smiling, an unfamiliar feature in his portraits and an aspect that required extended revision by the portraitist. Thomas claimed to have studied ‘a ton of photographs’ in order to evoke the suggestion of a natural smile. Trump’s figure is athletic and slim, and emits a white glow that illuminates the faces of the former presidents that linger on his retorts. In the background stands a woman. According to Thomas this is the first woman president striding boldly into the group of males, an aspect of the portrait upon which Trump has made no comment.

In 1989, Trump purchased Ralph Wolfe Cowan’s oil sketch The Entrepreneur (or The Visionary) for $24,000. Capturing his youthful, country club persona, with an iridescent all-white tennis outfit and gleaming sun tan, Cowan’s portrait of Trump is backed by ethereal spotlights from a recognisably Cowan sky. The most aesthetically idiosyncratic marker of the piece, however, is the under-painted hand. To any art historian or follower of Cowan’s work, the under-painting is a much admired and distinguishing trope. To Trump, this was a frustrating and displeasing error on Cowan’s part. In the 15 years that followed Trump’s purchase of the painting, he proceeded to pester Cowan, demanding that he ‘finish’ the hand, to which Cowan responded ‘it is finished’. Eventually, the two came to the settlement of an additional $3,000 in exchange for the painted hand. The portrait now hangs in Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Palm Springs hotel, of which Cowan was made a private member upon his reduction of the initial costs by 60 percent.

Trump’s relationship with his image – as reflected by remarks such as his recent address to photojournalists at his working lunch with Kim Jong-un, in which he asked ‘Do we look handsome and thin?’ – is as complex and astounding as many of his speeches. There are overwhelming inconsistencies in Trump’s criteria for an acceptable portrait. In Thomas’ piece he is smiling, whereas he usually adopts a domineering scowl in press photographs to establish his authority. While we continue to fathom his image in the media, two things can be known for sure: firstly, Trump’s overwhelming political and financial influence extends to, almost astonishingly, the art community, and overrides even the most treasured visual qualities that set apart an artist; and secondly, beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder.

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Bea Prutton

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August 2022
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