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Obama’s Return Engagement at the National Portrait Gallery: His “60 Minutes” Close-Up

Watching Barack Obama being interviewed at the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) by Scott Pelley of CBS‘s “60 Minutes” brought back memories last Sunday of one of my two Best Press Previews Ever—the NPG’s unveiling of Obama’s portrait by Kehinde Wiley. (My other most memorable press preview was here.)

Revisiting those galleries for a conversation pegged to the publication of the former President’s blockbuster memoir must have caused Obama also to reflect on that celebratory event of February 2018, which had occasioned the reunion of key figures from his administration.

Oh hello, Joe Biden!

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Pelley and Obama strode past his leafy likeness, which, unlike most other Presidential portraits at the NPG (but like Abraham Lincoln‘s and George Washington‘s) is fronted by stanchions, protecting it, perhaps, from reckless selfie-takers):

Screenshot by Lee Rosenbaum

Here’s the pre-pandemic camera-wielding scrum at that portrait’s (and Michelle’s) unveiling, with CultureGrrl (and a few other illustrious dignitaries) in attendance:

L to R: Kim Sajet, director, NPG; artist Kehinde Wiley; Barack Obama; Michelle Obama; artist Amy Sherald; David Skorton, then secretary of the Smithsonian Institution
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The bulk of Sunday’s CBS conversation took place under the pensive gaze of George Peter Alexander Healy’s “Abraham Lincoln,” 1887, about whom Obama said: “There’s no American figure that I admire more.” He praised Lincoln as “a good example of somebody who I think understood deeply the need to be able to see another person’s point of view”—a quality in short supply during these politically divisive times:

Screenshot by Lee Rosenbaum

He said he titled his book, “The Promised Land,” because “even though we may not get there in our lifetimes, even if we experience hardships and disappointments along the way, I at least still have faith we can create a more perfect union. Not a perfect union, but a more perfect union.”

In his narration, Pelley commented: “We couldn’t help but notice [that] outside the National Portrait Gallery, businesses are still boarded up against the fear of political violence”:

Shuttered businesses, with the NPG in the background
Screenshot by Lee Rosenbaum

Here’s another view of the NPG’s desolate environs:

Screenshot by Lee Rosenbaum

These images are visually powerful rebuttals to those who have disputed my contention that the postponement of the National Gallery’s (and three other host museums’) planned Philip Guston retrospective, which included provocative images of Ku Klux Klan members, was “a matter of responsible stewardship during a time of volatile protests that have sometimes turned violent and destructive….Exceptional care must be taken to safeguard cultural objects that could become trigger points,” I wrote.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this post said that the NPG was among the four museums that had postponed the Guston show. It is the National Gallery, not the National Portrait Gallery, that will eventually host that show (as I wrote in the post linked to the words, “my contention,” in the above paragraph). My apologies for the error.

For now, that’s all moot: Starting this Monday, the NPG, like all Smithsonian museums, and the National Gallery will revert to shut-down mode, “due to rising regional and national cases related to the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to yesterday’s Smithsonian press release and the NGA’s announcement.

But back to Barack: The AP reports that Obama’s memoir “sold nearly 890,000 copies in the U.S. and Canada in its first 24 hours, putting it on track to be the best selling presidential memoir in modern history….The only book by a former White House resident to come close to the early pace of ‘A Promised Land’ is the memoir by Obama’s wife, Michelle Obama, whose ‘Becoming’ sold 725,000 copies in North America its first day and has topped 10 million worldwide since its release in 2018.”

All of which made me wonder about our embattled outgoing President’s future memoir and commissioned portrait for the NPG’s “America’s Presidents” galleries—assuming that someone manages to persuade or compel him to make way for his duly elected successor.

As Elizabeth Harris and Alexandra Alter of the NY Times have reported, publishers are agonizing over how to handle a pitch for a Trump memoir: “Some executives worried that signing him would prompt a revolt among their authors and staff, and that ensuring the book’s veracity could be an even bigger concern.”

Here’s what the NPG’s spokesperson told me on Monday, in response to my query about plans for the portraits of the 45th President and his wife:

We will be commissioning official portraits for both President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump but have not yet started the process. As with the Obamas, we typically start the process closer to the President’s end of term in office. We will be starting the process shortly now.

We currently have a portrait of First Lady Melania Trump on view in our Every Eye Is Upon Me: First Ladies of the United States, which is on loan from the White House. The exhibition opened Nov 13 and will be on view [or maybe not, in light of the imminent shutdown] through May 23, 2021. 

Here’s Melania’s official White House portrait, on view, at this writing, at the NPG:

Regine Mahaux-Van Wassenhove, “Melania Trump,” 2017 (printed in 2020)
The White House

And here’s what the exhibition’s website says about her:

Melania Trump (born 1970)
Born Novo Mesto, Yugoslavia (now Slovenia)

Melania Knauss Trump, shown here in her official White House portrait, was born in Slovenia. After Louisa Catherine Adams, Trump is only the second first lady to have been born outside of the United States and the first to become a naturalized citizen. Since the success of her husband Donald Trump’s run for president in 2016, she has focused on raising their son, Barron, and her Be Best campaign, which supports children’s well-being with a focus on two specific issues: online safety and combating opioid abuse.  

During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Melania Trump actively used her @FLOTUS Twitter account to promote information on health and safety while encouraging parents to remain attentive to the needs of their children.

The Donald Trump portrait (below) that’s already owned by the NPG will presumably be trumped (forgive me!) by a new commission.

Michael O’Brien, “Donald Trump,” inkjet print, 1989 (printed in 2011)
National Portrait Gallery

Also due for a re-do is this biographical text for Trump, which is currently at the above link on the museum’s website:

On November 8, 2016, real estate magnate, businessman and reality television star Donald J. Trump completed a stunning rise to the presidency by defeating Hillary Rodham Clinton after one of the most volatile and divisive campaigns in recent memory. Tapping into a deep vein of populist American sentiment, Trump became the first non-politician to win the presidency since Dwight D. Eisenhower. He had earlier garnered the Republican nomination, to the surprise of that party’s establishment figures.

Trump made his fortune in New York City real estate and then expanded his empire into airline, casino, and hotel ventures both in America and abroad. This photograph—which was also the cover for his second book, “Trump: Surviving at the Top,” 1990—shows the brash businessman tossing an apple into the air, advertising his role in New York City’s property boom of the late 1980s. Never short on confidence, Trump leveraged his business career through the media to create the persona that launched his political career.

It remains to be seen how the NPG’s historians will parse the controversies and conflicts that have riven our nation during Trump’s tumultuous term.

A more immediate question: Who would accept an assignment to be Donald Trump’s portraitist?

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