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Picturing the Presidents (DVD Review)

31 Jan, 2009 By: John Latchem

Picturing the Presidents

Street 2/10/09
$14.98 DVD.

Andrew Jackson used his for propaganda. James K. Polk sports a mullet. John F. Kennedy’s is abstract. Bill Clinton’s is casual. LBJ reportedly hated his. One of Lincoln’s may have gotten him elected. And George Washington’s may be the most iconic.

They are the portraits of the presidents, preserved for posterity in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Lansdowne PortraitThis fascinating documentary from the Smithsonian Channel uses interviews with artists, art critics and regular folks just visiting the museum to examine what goes into producing a presidential portrait, and what qualities such a work of art should possess to capture the essence of a head of state. Needless to say, opinions vary.

The program guides viewers through different trends in presidential portraits, from the velvet-and-lace fashions of the early presidents to modern suits and ties, which Clinton’s portraitist, Nelson Shanks, considers boring.

The centerpiece of the National Portrait Gallery is the famed Lansdowne portrait of Washington, a demonstration of American majesty that doesn’t rely on the ornate trappings of European royalty. The disc includes a great bonus program that focuses on the Lansdowne portrait and its artist, Gilbert Stuart.

In the 19th century, photography had a huge impact on the art of the portrait and popular culture. One of the last photos of Lincoln was developed with a crack through his head, an eerie foreshadowing of his assassination.

Picturing the Presidents also includes a lengthy segment about political cartoons, for which an American president is the most natural target. The show traces the history of presidential caricatures, from their heyday in the era of Thomas Nast, to modern satirists such as Pat Oliphant, who remarks that presidents are “doomed to failure as soon as they’re elected.”

These tantalizing looks into the artists’ mindset make Picturing the Presidents a must-see for history buffs and presidential enthusiasts of all ages.

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