WASHINGTON, December 8, 2016 — “Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not the sitter. The sitter is merely the accident, the occasion.”
So wrote Oscar Wilde in “The Picture of Dorian Gray.”
Wednesday, Time magazine declared President-Elect Donald J. Trump its “Person of the Year.” It described their choice as the “real estate baron and casino owner turned reality-TV star and provocateur – never a day spent in public office, never a debt owed to any interest besides his own – now surveys the smoking ruin of a vast political edifice that once housed parties, pundits, donors, pollsters, those who did not see him coming or take him seriously. Out of this reckoning, Trump is poised to preside, for better or worse.”
The magazine’s cover shows Trump sitting on a modest thrown, his back to the viewer, his head caught in mid-swivel as the sitter sneers over his shoulder like a fierce, antediluvian conqueror.
“What is the best in life?” asks the wizard in the 1982 film “Conan the Barbarian.”
“To crush your enemies,” answers Conan, “to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women.”
Photographer Nadav Kander beautifully conveys the fear and loathing of the mainstream media, the churlish left and the GOP’s never-Trumpers for America’s driving, populist hordes and their orange-haired liege.
It’s reminiscent of two other portraits from the past.
A PRUDENT PONTIFF
In 1650, Pope Innocent X balked at a request by Spanish artist Diego Velázquez to paint his portrait. Unimpressed by the artist’s renown, the pope presented him with a task: Velázquez must submit a portrait – of someone else – as a test of his skill.
In answer, the Spaniard painted his servant Juan de Pareja. The portrait showcased his talent and ability to paint quickly. And with that, the pope agreed to pose.
At seeing his completed portrait, Innocent is said to have exclaimed, “All too true!”
In 1864, French critic and historian Hippolyte Taine wrote his impressions of the painting, describing Pope Innocent X’s visage as “the face of a poor simpleton, an obsolete pedant: and from that an unforgettable painting has been made!”
A PERNICIOUS INVESTOR
In 1903, the man who bailed out an insolvent U.S. government – not once but twice – was already annoyed with his guest. The celebrated photographer Edward Steichen was on hand to take the portrait of powerful Wall Street financier John Pierpont Morgan. The impudent shutterbug, who a moment before asked his sitter to put aside his cigar, was now demanding he readjust his pose.
Steichen liked what he saw and captured the ephemeral instant for posterity.
Emerging from the darkness like a speeding automobile, Morgan’s angry eyes shine at the viewer like a pair of burning headlights. It’s a happy accident that the light striking the highly reflective lacquered arm of his chair makes it look as though the tycoon is coming at you with a knife.
THE MORAL TO THIS STORY
Time magazine said Trump’s election as the nation’s 45th president is a reminder to “America that demagoguery feeds on despair and that truth is only as powerful as the trust in those who speak it.”
That admonishing declaration certainly applies to our left-leaning and biased media, which played so important a role in Trump’s electoral success.
The reason, of course, is that the American people, now more than ever, look askance at the media’s self-portrait as honest broker and teller of truth.
As the surrealist painter Salvador Dalí said, “The reason some portraits don’t look true to life is that some people make no effort to resemble their pictures.”