WASHINGTON, DC — In February, the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) unveiled with presidential pomp a portrait of Kevin Spacey as Frank J. Underwood, dark prince of politics in the popular Netflix series House of Cards. The painting is a collaboration between the museum and Jonathan Yeo, the artist behind such other high-profile portraits as those of Tony Blair, Malala Yousafzai, and — yes — another of Kevin Spacey. It will greet visitors at the museum’s G Street entrance through October.
The NPG, fine establishment of US history and culture that it is, doesn’t let just anyone grace its walls. Its distinguished collection showcases the icons who have shaped our national identity. While many of these important folks are indeed presidents and politicians — and real people — there are a few fictional characters already included, among them Ethel Merman as Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun and Robin Williams as Mork in Mork & Mindy.
For his contribution, Yeo depicts the cunning House of Cards character at life-size: Underwood looks down on you snidely from his six-by-six-foot frame. His legs are crossed in such a way that his left foot could deal a swift kick to your ribs if occasion called for it. Yeo’s palette is subdued, almost ominous: muddled browns, blacks, and blues dominate the foreground, while a pale gray sfumato obscures the Oval Office furniture in the background.
But like a lot of Yeo’s celebrity portraiture, the surface of the canvas is just a reflection of the thousands of images we’ve already seen of this personality. Spacey as Underwood is plastered all over the US right now in a similarly smug mock campaign poster, which makes Yeo’s portrait great advertising — not great art. Little of the actor’s real-life affectations shine through, which is a shame, since Spacey is one of the more memorable actors of his generation, having racked up accolades and awards almost annually for two decades straight.
In fact, when the NPG contacted Yeo to request a portrait of the actor, it seems to have been less interested in immortalizing Spacey’s dramatic gravitas, or even his presidential character’s addictive misandry. In a press release issued the day after the painting was unveiled, the museum points to the release of the full House of Cards series on Netflix as significant.
“This precipitated a revolution in television and has been credited with creating a fundamental shift in audience viewing habits by releasing an entire season of a series at once,” the statement reads. Oh, let us pledge our allegiance to the land of the free and the home of the couch-bound binge-watcher!
Indeed, Yeo seems to have tried to capture the sense of sitting in front of a TV within the portrait. The fuzzy horizontal lines that coyly streak the canvas recall static from long ago, when tube televisions were still a thing. The glory of digital services like Netflix, however, would have been better conveyed through lightly brushed circles evoking a stuck loading screen. Or perhaps the artist could have annoyingly pixelated part of Spacey’s face.
Nevertheless, the portrait’s eight-month-long display celebrates our nation’s most beloved current pastime: sitting in front of a screen. It also reveals our appetite for sensational politics, which should come as no surprise amid this rodeo of an election season. We the people were once sated by Underwood’s make-believe underworld; we delighted in episodic samplings of his deviant dealings and horrifying hubris. Now we gorge until we’re sick on a buffet of racist, xenophobic, and misogynist statements from actual presidential contenders. The characters of House of Cards seem almost banal by comparison!
With the reputation of our nation’s highest office in question thanks to grown men making dick jokes, perhaps the NPG is wise to focus on the one unifying force in America right now: Netflix and chill. Should a donor with an appreciation for streaming services come forward, Yeo’s Underwood portrait could become a part of the national collection forever.
Jonathan Yeo’s “Kevin Spacey as President Francis J. Underwood” is on view at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery (8th St & F St NW, Washington, DC) through October 16.
Correction: This article originally misstated that the portrait of Kevin Spacey as Frank J. Underwood was temporarily hanging in place of a painting of George Washington. We regret the error, and it has been fixed.
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