Presidential Image Maker : From a Snapshot, Artist Allen Hirsch Rendered What Will Serve as an Official Portrait for 4 Years
About Bill Clinton’s face:
“He has a kind of self-assuredness on the left side. . . . From the right side, his right eye especially, I would say this is a person who has a great command of factual data.”
The author of this assessment, Allen M. Hirsch, has spent not one minute in the presence of the new President of the United States. But for almost two months, Hirsch “lived” intensely with Bill Clinton while he painted the portrait that will hang in the National Portrait Gallery for the next four years.
Hirsch, 33, is an artist whose big break came as he faced penury nearly a decade ago. Hirsch had set himself up on the street outside New York’s Whitney Museum, a Christ-like self-portrait at his side. Struck by the sophisticated technique and the sensitivity of the work, an illustrator from Time magazine stopped to talk. Soon Hirsch was at work on the first of an eventual 13 covers commissioned by Time--ranging from Saddam Hussein to Moammar Kadafi to Rajiv Gandhi to a troubled image of a nameless drug abuser.
Rudy Hoglund, the art director at Time, praised Hirsch’s “classical style” of painting, adding, “There’s so much emotion that he pours into his work.”
Hirsch’s cover art was eventually sent to the “Time room” at the National Portrait Gallery here--bringing Hirsch, who studied at the Portrait Gallery as a teen-ager, in a kind of artistic full circle. When he learned shortly after the election that the museum was looking for a portrait of Clinton to install on Inauguration Day, Hirsch asked to submit a painting.
Fred Voss, curator of the Time Collection at the Portrait Gallery, termed the arrangement a “speculative venture” on all parts. “We were looking for an image of Clinton to hang in our Presidential Hall,” Voss said, “and he was interested in doing a likeness” of the new President.
No payment and no other artists were involved in a process that Voss called “a little bit haphazard.” He said the Portrait Gallery reserved the right to accept or reject Hirsch’s painting, which will hang in the museum until Clinton poses for a portrait when he leaves office. Technically, Hirsch has lent the painting to the Gallery.
Lauding the “immediacy” and “confrontational quality” that characterizes Hirsch’s paintings, Voss said: “We’re very pleased with the picture that Allen has placed on loan with us.”
Because a sitting with Clinton was out of the question, Hirsch asked aides to the President-elect for a photograph from which to work. What they came up with was “a lousy, out-of-focus, one-inch head shot.” But the rare closed-mouth countenance in the snapshot made the normally toothy politician look “very dignified and presidential.”
For two months, Hirsch took the picture everywhere. He studied it night and day, to the point that Bill Clinton’s face began appearing on coffee cups, in subway ads, in crowds and wherever the eye of the New York artist happened to fall.
For as long as he can remember, Hirsch said, he has been fascinated by dichotomy and duality. In faces, this means a marked distinction between left and right sides, as if two separate humans inhabit a single visage.
In the right side dwells a sense of drive, “the quality that we associate with achievers,” Hirsch said. The left side reveals a “synergetic, creative person,” someone who is known for “a sense of being open to things.”
Clinton, said Hirsch, “has a natural brilliance on his right side.” But the dominant quality of this portion of his face can give him “a kind of cold quality.” Even in the weeks since his election, Hirsch said, Clinton’s left side has deepened, “as if the responsibility of leadership is weighing on him.”
Hirsch began the Clinton portrait with a medium called encaustic. The candle wax-like technique, he said, allows the artist to achieve different looks by applying layer upon layer of wax. The process also results in the “textural” quality that Fred Voss admires in Hirsch’s work.
With each new layer, the image changes, Hirsch said--an occasional source of frustration. But “I like a portrait to have the tension of becoming a different person,” he said. “That’s what’s in a face anyway.”
For three weeks, the portrait “shifted between being Paul Newman, Robert Redford and William Clinton,” Hirsch said. Finally, he scraped off all the layers and began to paint directly in oil. “Within a day, I had the face down to what I wanted,” Hirsch said.
The finished work is “unusually light and positive,” Hirsch said, perhaps because “I was using Clinton’s optimism as a vehicle.”
But even on the train from New York to Washington, Hirsch was putting finishing touches on the painting that will hang in the Portrait Gallery while Clinton is in the White House. When he leaves office, Hirsch will compete for the chance to paint a life portrait of Clinton.
Clinton has not seen the new painting. But one of Hirsch’s plans for the week is to send a photograph of the work to the President and ask for his opinion. He said he will send a separate letter and photograph to First Lady Hillary Clinton, a “definite left-sider” from whom the artist expects a different kind of critique.
For now, Hirsch agrees it is odd never to have met the man whose face he knows so well.
“But I wave at him now when I see him on TV,” Hirsch said.