George Washington would have been jealous. When painter Gilbert Stuart painted his portrait, the General spent 15 hours posing, hating every self-conscious moment. In contrast, just a week before Inauguration Day, Barack Obama gave White House photographer Pete Souza five minutes to record his easy smile.
Shepard Fairey went Souza one better. Fairey required none of Obama’s time to produce his now-ubiquitous red, white and blue illustration. Fairey Googled an Associated Press photograph taken by Mannie Garcia and manipulated it to make Obama-as-hope. The resulting image has been reproduced endlessly, on T-shirts, yard signs and stickers, and has even appeared in various guises on the covers of Time and Esquire.
The visual impact of Fairey’s graphic was so evident that shortly after its appearance in 2008, Obama’s advisors, without adopting it formally, welcomed it as a key campaign image. Fairey, whose works were once described as “non-gang graffiti,” has been transformed in the ensuing months from outsider artist to political insider. He set out to help engender political change, seeking, as he recently told Charlie Rose, “to make an image that says I support Barack Obama.”
So what would Washington have thought?
As our pioneer president, Washington intuited many principles that we accept as received wisdom. He understood that the public wanted to see what manner of man served as chief executive, so he subjected himself repeatedly to more than a dozen artists.
Not that he ever learned to like it. “Washington was a bad sitter,” reported the stepgrandson he raised from infancy. “After every sitting, he was wont to declare this must be the last.”
Out of expediency alone, Washington might well have cast an approving eye on today’s technological shortcuts; certainly he would have preferred Souza’s five minutes to hours of Stuart’s company.
Washington might have been less comfortable with Fairey’s approach. The General knew very well how to make an entrance; he understood the importance of stage presence, of silences and poses and postures. As a man of the 18th century, he accepted the face-to-face meeting as essential to human affairs; he likely would have been discomfited by a shadowy world in which the recorder/artist employs an Internet search engine and imaging software to produce a likeness of a man he knows only from other people’s images.
The contrast to Stuart’s approach is revealing. He was a practitioner of the “science” of physiognomy. He believed passionately that temperament and character could be read in facial features and expressions. He studied the men and women who sat for him, looking to record on canvas their essential natures.
Psychologists today may scoff at the antiquated notions of the physiognomists, but Stuart’s ability to identify telling details -- the set of the chin, the doubtful glance, the watery eye, the prim mouth -- make his gallery of Federal Era worthies, together with their papers, the best means we have of acquainting ourselves with Washington, Jefferson, Adams and their contemporaries.
Fairey draws upon his mastery of computer graphics, collage, silk-screening and the tools of the street artist, including spray paint. These particular artistic skills, however well he employs them -- and Fairey is highly skilled -- quite eclipse the ability to sketch a likeness or to render flesh tones on canvas.
Neither Washington nor Stuart would have understood Fairey’s talk of “branding” and “mainstreaming” Obama. Fairey’s goal, he has said, was to make a “promotional tool.” If it worked for Obama, his image-making also has given Fairey a giant boost. In addition to his various television appearances, his first museum survey show just went up in Boston, a burnished “retrospective” book is just out, and a mixed-media stenciled collage of Obama-as-hope is now an official part of the nation’s artistic canon. It was acquired by and is on exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington.
Obama-as-hope has become an icon, powerful and familiar, a tour de force of propaganda. But consider it in relation to Stuart’s Washington, possibly the most reproduced likeness in history. In looking at a dollar bill, you see the “head shot” Stuart made on commission for Martha Washington. He painted about 80 replicas of it (he called them his “hundred-dollar bills,” because that was the price he charged). They became so revered that, less than a generation after the General’s death, art critic John Neal observed, “If Washington should appear on Earth, just as he sat to Stuart, I am sure that he would be treated as an impostor.”
Quite by accident, Neal may have set the standard for judging iconic images. Certainly there are other impressions from our presidential past that come easily to mind. One is Mathew Brady’s wet-plate of the craggy Abraham Lincoln in 1860 at Cooper Union. When we think of JFK, chances are a flickering black-and-white television screen surfaces. Those have proven staying power.
Will Fairey’s poster become the analog for Obama? Only the unpredictable process of cultural selection can decide. But if the paradigm is Gilbert Stuart’s Washington, then the best-remembered recorder of Obama will have to convey to us a sense of the man.
Stuart’s wizardry was to give the viewer the illusion that his painted likeness was three-dimensional. Working in pure, unblended colors, Stuart made a face that conveys Washington’s gravity, a sense of repose and strength, and the man’s frustration too (his ill-fitting false teeth, he confided in a friend, were “uneasy in the mouth”).
In contrast, Fairey’s stencil-like treatments are empty of character and human content. They are fun, warm, colorful, accessible and memorable. Although they undoubtedly played an important role in marketing the candidate to the electorate, Fairey’s Obama posters convey little or nothing about the man.
Hugh Howard is a historian and the author of “The Painter’s Chair: George Washington and the Making of American Art.”