Portraits mark political history
Artists often put oil to canvas at this time of year to render the official portrait of a governor or legislative leader who’s coming or going from office.
Oil paintings of American politicians go back to George Washington. It’s a tradition that’s been made largely immune to budget pressures thanks to private funding.
But the practice isn’t without its challenges. The commissioning and placement of the portraits — most consistently governors but also legislators, justices and other statewide officials — can raise quirky questions.
What of the Ohio governor whose portrait probably took longer to paint than her 11-day tenure in office? Or the image of an Oregon governor whose past misdeeds later were revealed?
In Ohio, governors, lieutenant governors and presidents of the Ohio Senate all receive portraits. That includes the state’s only female governor, Nancy Hollister, who served less than two weeks after moving into the job George Voinovich vacated to head to the U.S. Senate before a permanent successor was sworn in.
Gregg Dodd, a spokesman for the Ohio Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board that oversees Statehouse operations, said it’s not a glut of historic paintings that’s prompted a stash of out-of-sight works to pile up.
“They’re awaiting restoration,” he said. “Unfortunately, budget considerations caused those projects to be put on the back burner.”
In Alabama, some fill-in governors are painted, some aren’t. Gov. Jim Folsom, who completed the final two years of Gov. Guy Hunt’s term, got a portrait. Lt. Gov. Jere Beasley, who filled in as governor for less than two weeks when Gov. George C. Wallace was recovering from an assassination attempt in 1972, did not.
Statehouses generally attempt to place official portraits in positions of prominence — with more recent figures closer to the front entrance. That is, until something goes awry.
Oregon relegated its portrait of former Gov. Neil Goldschmidt to a storage area at the Oregon Historical Society after he acknowledged having a long sexual relationship with a girl that began when she was 14 and he was mayor of Portland.
After Spiro Agnew pleaded no contest in a corruption case and was forced to step down as Richard Nixon’s vice president, his portrait disappeared for a while from the halls of the Statehouse in Maryland, where’s he’d served as governor. The painting’s since been rehung.
Many states — Alabama, Mississippi, Oregon and Nevada among them — pay for official portraits with tax dollars. The practice allows them to set some parameters on the end product, such as a uniformity of style and size.
Elsewhere, the cost of roughly $17,000 to $50,000 is covered by private donors. Though it may avoid cries of wasted taxpayer dollars, the alternative fundraising isn’t without its potholes.
Former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, an ex-governor of Arkansas, was scolded by the state ethics commission in 2008 for failing to disclose donors to a private fund he had set up to fund his portrait. He eventually was forced to reveal the names.
The fuss has prompted the rare official to decline the honor. Former Mississippi Gov. Bill Allain did just that after serving from 1984 to 1988.
Californians still await a portrait of former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose second term ended with the disintegration of his marriage to Maria Shriver after revelations of an extramarital affair and out-of-wedlock child. The actor-bodybuilder is footing the bill himself.