Monday, 7 February 2011

THE LAST COURT PAINTERS


Illustrator Bernie Fuchs standing behind President Kennedy at the White House

Once upon a time, kings and pharaohs sought the most talented artists in the land to serve as court painters. In an era before photography (and often before literacy) royal patrons of the arts knew they would be remembered by the images of their accomplishments.


Akhenaten's distinctive face was immortalized by his royal artists

Goya, Van Eyck, Rubens, Titian, Velazquez, Holbein and others found steady employment as court painters; they received a regular salary, ate well, and got to live in nicer surroundings than their peers in the art guild. Sometimes they went beyond capturing the face of the king to putting an aesthetic face on the entire kingdom.

But gradually emperors stopped sponsoring artists. The Medici Popes and Dukes who had once taken such pride in being represented by brilliant artists-- Michelangelo, Leonardo, Botticelli, Fra Angelico-- ended their patronage. Corporations emerged as the new centers of economic power and became the primary sponsors of art. The types of artists who once painted military victories for nobles found work painting for shampoo companies and car manufacturers.

Even though the era of court painters is over, we still see occasional flashes where an artist's strong voice helps articulate the identity of a leader or the style of the kingdom.

Dwight Eisenhower's presidency (1952-1960) was a conservative, traditional period so it was natural that his most iconic portrait was captured by Norman Rockwell-- an artist whose work embodied the traditional American values of the first half of the 20th century.

There is no better known painting of Eisenhower than this image from the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.

But as John Kennedy became president in 1961, a warm spring thaw was spreading across the country. The culture began an exciting period of innovation and experimentation.

Note the dramatic contrast between Rockwell's portrait of Eisenhower and Bernie Fuchs' iconic portraits of Kennedy just a few years later:




Fuchs' dynamic images of Kennedy were warmly embraced by the Kennedy clan. The painting of Kennedy on his boat (above) hangs today in the home of Kennedy's sister, Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith. Kennedy's counselor and speechwriter, Ted Sorensen, kept another painting by Fuchs on the wall of his office until the day he died, a few months ago. And when Sotheby's auctioned off the personal possessions of Kennedy's widow, Jacqueline Onassis, there were two Fuchs images among them. Accurately or not, Fuchs' artistic perspective was the way many in Camelot chose to perceive their era.

Kennedy posing for Fuchs in the oval office, 1962

Fuchs in the White House rose garden behind JFK and RFK

A few years later when Fuchs returned to the White House to paint President Lyndon Johnson's portrait, he found the personality of the government had changed sharply. The artistic style which was so appropriate for Kennedy was not of interest to Johnson.

Fuchs delivering his portrait of Lyndon Johnson in the oval office


Today it is difficult to imagine a leader anywhere who would turn to the arts to help establish their image . The triumph of video and the changed receptivity of the public are obviously important reasons for this transformation (although the lowered taste of rulers and the reduced ambitions of artists probably have something to do with it).

For a sense of just how far presidential portraits have sunk in our era, consider this famous portrait of Barack Obama:



The artist Shepard Fairey lifted his image from a copyrighted news photograph. When confronted with his theft, Fairey admitted that he had lied to the court and tried to destroy the evidence. Nevertheless, the fawning art critic and "postmodern poet" Peter Schjeldahl wrote an embarrassing review for the New Yorker in which he called Fairey's poster "the most efficacious American political illustration since 'Uncle Sam Wants You.'"

In an era where Photoshop substitutes for technical skill and expropriation substitutes for imagination, perhaps it is fitting that the era of court painters is behind us.