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Portrait artist says he painted Lewinsky reference in Bill Clinton’s official painting

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 3/2/2015
Former president Bill Clinton with his official portrait in Washington in 2006. © Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP Photo Former president Bill Clinton with his official portrait in Washington in 2006.

A cursory glance at the official painting of President Bill Clinton that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery would easily miss an ode to the lowest point of his presidency — Monica Lewinsky.

But it’s there, the artist revealed in an interview with the Philadelphia Daily News. Philadelphia area painter Nelson Shanks cunningly included a shadow over the fireplace cast from a blue dress on a mannequin.

Shanks said painting Clinton was his hardest assignment because “he is probably the most famous liar of all time.” So he added the nod to the Lewinsky scandal because it had cast a shadow over Clinton’s presidency.

“He and his administration did some very good things, of course,” Shanks said, “but I could never get this Monica thing completely out of my mind, and it is subtly incorporated in the painting.” He told the Daily News:

If you look at the left-hand side of it there’s a mantel in the Oval Office and I put a shadow coming into the painting and it does two things. It actually 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.

Shanks did not reveal this nine years ago when the portrait was unveiled. But perhaps now we could read between the lines of what he did say.

“I think the painting really feels like Bill Clinton,” he said then, according to The Washington Post. “It has — I would not call it swagger. . . . What? An informality? A looseness, a relaxed nature.”

Shanks alluded in the interview with the Daily News that Bill and Hillary Clinton are aware of the symbolism in the painting.

“And so the Clintons hate the portrait,” he said.

A Clinton spokesman refused to comment.


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