Portraying Politicos: The Real Art Of The Possible

​This weekend The Federalist published my brief survey of some of the work created thus far by the Contemporary Art world both for and against Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump are just the latest public figures to come under artistic scrutiny. In art history, political personages have frequently served as sources for both artistic inspiration and artistic patronage. Sometimes the results can be magnificent works of art, but at other times, the attempt to glorify a political leader can turn out to be rather ridiculous.

Portraiture is an easy way for artists to highlight the power and influence of a political figure. For example, in Diego Velázquez’ magnificent “Portrait of Pope Innocent X” (1650) at the Galleria Doria Pamphilj in Rome, the painter portrayed the politically powerful pontiff in such an insightful way, that it is still recognized as one of the finest portraits ever created in the history of art. The challenge of painting such a physically unattractive figure was no small task; even the Pope himself was said to remark that the intense, sharp gaze and the blotchy skin was “all too true”. Nevertheless the artist managed to successfully straddle the delicate line between idealism and realism in capturing the intensity of his subject, and giving the impression that here was a very serious leader, whom you did not want to tangle with.

Sculptor Penelope Jencks’ pleasing “Eleanor Roosevelt” (1996), located on Riverside Drive in New York City, was, ironically enough, unveiled by Mrs. Clinton herself back when she was First Lady. Mrs. Roosevelt was a physically unattractive woman, and to many on the Right she remains a political anathema. However in this sculpture, Jencks managed to create an interesting, powerful portrait of an important political figure, without over-idealizing her subject. It is a thoughtful, reflective piece, with its “listening” pose and casual stance, as Mrs. Roosevelt is shown resting against a stone with her ankles crossed. It manages to flatter the memory and influence of Mrs. Roosevelt, without pretending that she was some sort of goddess.

On the other side of the coin, we find Agnolo Bronzino’s strange, Mannerist portrait of about 1537-39, “Grand Duke Cosimo de Medici As Orpheus”, now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The young Grand Duke of Tuscany is portrayed (rather surprisingly) in the nude, and given the attributes of Orpheus from Greek mythology. He is shown playing music intended to soothe the three-headed dog Cerberus, guardian of the gates of Hades, who is lurking in the background. One theory in trying to understand this image is that it was intended as a political allegory, symbolizing how the newly-restored Medici dynasty would bring back quiet and calm to Tuscany, with the abolition of the Florentine Republic. Yet if such was the intent behind this painting, by turning the scion of a political family into a god, one cannot help but chuckle at the result.

Similarly, if you have visited the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., you may have seen the monumental sculpture by Horatio Grennough titled “Enthroned Washington” (1840). To mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of 1st U.S. President, Congress commissioned a statue from Grennough designed to evoke the heroic, long-vanished seated statue of Zeus from Mount Olympus by the Ancient Greek sculptor Phidias. The completed statue of Washington was originally placed in the grandeur of the Capitol Rotunda, but it drew so much controversy and laughter as a result of its semi-nude appearance, that Congress moved it to the East Lawn of the Capitol. It was later given to the Smithsonian, and has resided in the more modest surroundings of the National Museum of American History since the 1960’s.

Art meant to praise a political figure is one thing; art meant to criticize one is another. If today’s political candidates see themselves as being unfairly and crudely skewered by the art world, they should realize that they are in fact in good historic company. The English Civil War, the Russian Revolution, and the Spanish Civil War, among others, all featured a wide distribution of popularly available prints and illustrations, which in many cases led to the general acceptance of politically-motivated lies as truth. Often these works were crude, pornographic, racist, or just plain trash.

Anyone with common sense can look at such pieces, and dismiss them as nothing more than poorly-executed works of art. However if you do not believe that art critical of the establishment can lead to real political consequences, search for some of the lascivious engravings of false allegations that were widely circulated regarding Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette before the fall of the French Monarchy. Many of the lies propagated by these works ended up being alleged as facts against the King and Queen at their respective trials, and subsequent executions.

During the Eighty Years’ War, art created with the intent of crudely insulting one’s political opponents was very popular on both sides of the conflict. This was the long slog between Catholic and Protestant powers for control over what is today Belgium and The Netherlands. Because of the length of the conflict, the wealth of the combatants, and the fact that this was all taking place against the backdrop of one of the greatest artistic flowerings in European history, many highly individual, and rather insulting, works of art were created during this battle of wills.

One interesting example of this is “Queen Elizabeth I Feeds the Dutch Cow”, a painting by an unknown 16th century Netherlandish artist which is currently in the Rijks Museum in Amsterdam. In it, we see King Philip II of Spain riding a cow, which is meant to symbolize his power over The Netherlands. Unfortunately for Philip, he cannot move his mount forward despite his spurring, because the Dutch Protestant leader William of Orange has the proverbial bull – er, cow – by the horns, and the cow herself is being fed by the equally Protestant Queen Elizabeth I of England.

At around the time this work was painted, Elizabeth had entered into trade agreements with the Dutch, which allowed the rebels greater means by which to hold out against the Spanish. Meanwhile Frederick, Duke of Anjou, to whom the rebellious Dutch had offered sovereignty when they rejected Philip, and who then proceeded to get himself thrown out of Holland after a disastrous uprising against him at Antwerp, is shown in the picture as well, being defecated on by the cow. A final individual in the painting is wearing Spanish court dress as he milks the cow from underneath, but the artist shows that this fellow is about to get kicked or trod upon by the cow.

While this painting was created to insult Spanish politics, another work of art dating from roughly the same time and place seeks to do the exact opposite. In about 1570, another unknown Netherlandish artist created a highly political sculpture titled “The Grand Duke of Alba Defeats The Enemies of Philip II”, which is still held in the Ducal collections of the House of Alba. It features the 3rd Grand Duke of Alba, Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, attacking a monstrous, three-headed hydra. What makes it particularly interesting and political however, is that the three heads of the hydra are caricatures of three of Philip’s greatest political enemies: Pope Paul IV, Queen Elizabeth I of England, and Augustus, Elector of Saxony.

All three of the leaders who make up the monster which the Duke of Alba is trying to slay caused significant political headaches for Philip, and all three had to tangle with the Duke of Alba on more than one occasion. Thus, while the sculpture certainly flatters the Grand Duke and, by extension, Philip himself, its more important, political purpose is to insult other European leaders who were opposed to Spanish political ambitions. In reality, only Pope Paul managed to find himself bested by Alba, but then even popes were rarely Catholic enough for Spanish standards. As a result, this piece of political propaganda is, to some extent, an example of wishful thinking.

Whether created to support, flatter, or disparage a particular figure, these portrayals of powerful politicians continue to fascinate, as well as to inform both our understanding of these individuals, and the times in which they held sway over government and society.

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