Nelson Shanks's "William J. Clinton" hanging in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. (photo by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)

Nelson Shanks’s “William J. Clinton” hanging in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC in 2008. (all images by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)

Is there a veiled allusion to Monica Lewinsky in the portrait of Bill Clinton on display in the National Portrait Gallery? It depends on what the definition of “is” is, Clinton might claim. But the artist, Nelson Shanks, is less equivocal: “I could never get this Monica thing completely out of my mind and it is subtly incorporated in the painting,” he told Mashable.

The shadow of Monica Lewinsky's infamous blue dress casts its shadow on the Clinton portrait.

The shadow of Monica Lewinsky’s infamous blue dress casts its shadow on the Clinton portrait.

The more specific reference point is the infamous blue dress, which Lewinsky wore while performing oral sex on Clinton — and which bore a telltale and much-discussed semen stain in the aftermath of the controversial affair. Shanks worked this iconic garment into the portrait subtly: the painting depicts Clinton standing prominently before the mantel in the Oval Office while the dress makes an inconspicuous appearance in the form of a shadow behind him. (Shanks also opted to leave Clinton’s wedding ring out of the painting.) Apparently, the 42nd president’s controversial sexual relationship with a White House intern will persist as a visual and metaphorical blight on his terms in office.

Elaine de Kooning, "John F. Kennedy" (1963)

Elaine de Kooning, “John F. Kennedy” (1963)

Aesthetically speaking, the Lewinsky reference may be the only revolutionary aspect of an otherwise conservative presidential portrait: compare Shank’s uninspired realism with Elaine de Kooning’s innovative rendering of JFK. Say what you will about Clinton and Monica, but the Lewinsky affair saved an otherwise boring painting.

According to the artist:

… the Clintons hate the portrait. They want it removed from the National Portrait Gallery. They’re putting a lot of pressure on them.

Though when contacted a spokesperson from the National Portrait Gallery, they denied that.

It is worth noting that when Amazon Art launched in 2013, Shanks was one of the highest priced artists on the site with paintings ranging from $500,000 to upwards of $900,000. 

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Becca Rothfeld

Becca Rothfeld is assistant literary editor of The New Republic and a contributor to The Los Angeles Review of Books, The New York Daily News’ literary blog, The Baffler, and...

7 replies on “Monica Lewinsky Casts a Shadow on Bill Clinton’s Presidential Portrait”

  1. The perspective (especially the frame above the mantle) and pose are terrible. Lewinsky reference (really?!) is beyond awful. Did Roger Ailes commission this?

    1. The painting is from the artist’s perspective, he painted Clinton as he viewed him. It is not a comic book, human perspective is not one dimensional.
      The artist painted Clinton as he saw him both literally and metaphorically. The blue dress was one scandal that the Clintons weren’t able to write off as “just another right wing conspiracy”.

      1. Then the artist’s perspective is lousy. What is the deal with the arm? This portrait is just bad.

  2. The portrait itself is so dull, and of such embarrassingly mediocre quality, I imagine Shanks resorted to his “scandalous” revelation in order to counter the snoozefest it’s provoked.

    That said, Clinton’s head looks too small, his left shoulder looks too large, and that whole left arm is just a shapeless mess. Plus, Clinton looks like Ted Koppel. I could keep going; the longer I look at it, the more faults I see. So if, as Shanks claims, the Clintons do want it removed, I’d expect the real reason to be because it’s a lousy painting–nothing more.

  3. Yeah, because as we know based on what happened after Clinton left office, having an affair is the worst thing a president can ever do.

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