In Brief

Monica Lewinsky Casts a Shadow on Bill Clinton’s Presidential Portrait

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 Philly.com 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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