Stephen McGinty: Hidden in the Clinton painting

NOT every painting is what it seems and some portraits have subliminal meanings, as the artist who painted US President Bill Clinton revealed this week, writes Stephen McGinty.

Nelson Shanks claimed he slipped an allusion to the Lewinsky affair into his portrait of Bill Clinton. Picture: AP

THE heir to the throne should feel confident in his clothes and so it is that when Prince Charles puts on his suits, which are tailor-made on Savile Row, he can relax safe in the knowledge that none has hidden in its lining the declaration “I am a c***.”

Customers do not usually approach the tailors of Savile Row in the hope that secret messages will be stitched into the seams of their garments, flattering or otherwise. Usually they are drawn by the intimate service, the good name of the tailor, the particular feel of a well-crafted piece of fabric or simply because they like to boast that while their colleagues’ clobber is from the High Street, theirs is hand-crafted.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

The reason we know that Prince Charles’s suits are free from hidden messages is that the tailors who made them quietly asked for their return in order to ensure they were suitably free from expletives. This is not usual practice but then again not every tailor on Savile Row had Alexander McQueen as an apprentice, for it was the late enfant terrible of fashion, who boasted in interviews of appending his own comments to the inside lining of the monarch-to-be’s double-breasted suits. An idle boast, as his former employers were relieved to discover.

Yet the story of McQueen’s nefarious and clandestine stitching, or lack thereof, returned to the press this week as the subject of secret messages, be they stitched or painted, gained some traction. The trigger was an interview which the American portrait painter Nelson Shanks gave to the Philadelphia Daily News in which he admitted to slipping a secret image into the portrait he painted for the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC of President Bill Clinton.

He said: “Clinton was hard. I’ll tell you why. The reality is he’s probably the most famous liar of all time. He and his administration did some very good things, of course, but I could never get this Monica [Lewinsky] thing completely out of my mind and it is subtly incorporated in the painting. If you look at the left-hand side of it there’s a mantle in the Oval Office and I put a shadow coming into the painting and it does two things. It literally represents a shadow from a blue dress that I had on a mannequin, that I had there while I was painting it, but not when he was there. It is also a bit of a metaphor in that it represents a shadow on the office he held, or on him. And so the Clintons hate the portrait. They want it removed from the National Portrait Gallery. They’re putting a lot of pressure on them.”

The National Portrait Gallery, meanwhile, insisted the Clintons have applied no pressure and that as it currently has 55 different portraits of the former president the paintings are frequently rotated. Back in 2006 when the painting was first unveiled Mr Shanks gave no hint of its hidden meaning. “There are times when I love to play all kinds of complicated games in painting. But I think this is one case when I need to be fairly straightforward. I’ll just try to paint the man, his intelligence, his amiability and his stature, maybe paint him fairly close to humour and try to get it just right,” he said.

Looking at the portrait today I think Mr Shanks did a rather fine job in capturing the ebullient nature of the first baby-boomer president but that the revelation of the hidden shadow of the infamous blue dress will now distract from the artistic merit of the painting. I’m curious as to why he decided now, almost ten years after the picture was unveiled, to let the world into the secret image? Perhaps he’s unfavourable to the prospect of Hillary Clinton running again for president and wished to raise once again the spectre of her husband’s disgrace and attempted impeachment?

However, an alternative possibility is that he had bitten his lip for so long and wanted a little praise for his boldness and artistic audacity. If so, it may well have backfired. Whenever anyone looks at the portrait today, they won’t ponder the facial expression or the cleverness of the stance, they will just focus on the spectral shadow over the fireplace and snigger about Monica Lewinsky and oral sex in the Oval Office.

I doubt very much that the Clintons were aware of the portrait’s secret and that, for whatever reason, they simply didn’t like the finished work. Perhaps it wasn’t presidential enough and made him appear too casual. They would not be alone in being unhappy with an artist’s rendition. Winston Churchill and his wife Clementine were famously aghast at Graham Sutherland portrait of the ageing political bulldog and made no pretence at their displeasure. At the unveiling Churchill described it as “a remarkable example of modern art” while Clementine had it burned shortly after it was delivered to Chartwell.

Yet hidden symbols have long nestled beside the oils on the artist’s palette. While Dan Brown enjoyed literary stardom dissecting the perceived hidden points in the work of Leonardo Di Vinci, there have been many more. Among the most famous is the portrait The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger which has a strange grey blurred streak under the image of two grand men, but when viewed at the right angle the streak reveals itself to be a human skull, a memento mori, reminding us that graveyards are full of powerful and “irreplaceable” men.

In more modern times when Herbert Abrams painted an official portrait of George HW Bush he deliberately had the president stand in front of another painting, The Peacemakers by George Healey which showed Lincoln meeting generals Grant and Sherman and which was meant to echo Bush’s victory in the first Gulf War. A very faint echo, I would say, given the calamity caused by his son 12 years later.

I do, however, have a sneaking admiration for Daphne Todd, the first female president of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters who admitted on the Today programme this week to painting a pair of horns under the hair of a sitter who had been particularly rude. She said: “He was rude, really. I had a four-hour round trip over the Christmas period in the early hours of darkness to get there for first light. And they can’t be bothered to get out of bed.”

While she refused to name the client, she admitted: “I painted a pair of horns. I painted hair on top but in future years these horns will bleed through … It maybe 50 or 100 years who knows but they are there if you X-ray it.”

This weekend I’m sure her former clients will be hauling down their portraits to check and see if they have been bequeathed with the mark of the beast. Yet in the end I wonder if these artistic tricks are not merely gimmicks, a frivolous entertainment, a private joke that only the artist can appreciate, until, that is, they decide to spill the beans. The great portrait painters don’t require such tricks, public or not.

I’m a huge admirer of the work of Ken Currie and dare anyone to visit the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh and not be struck into morbid silence by the spectral figures of The Three Oncologists apparently distracted in their work, which is clearly being carried out on the lip of a void.

Then there is the master, Lucian Freud. I could be wrong but I can’t image him putting little private jokes into his work, so intent was he on capturing the frailty and mortality of each subject. I can only wonder what he would have made of Bill Clinton if given the chance.