You don’t need a degree in art history or even a half-decent eye to know that the painting, recently discovered to be hanging on a wall in the White House, is one hell of a piece of art.
The image shows Trump, centre-stage, at an imagined drinks table. He is surrounded on all sides by previous Republican presidents, some dead, some living, all laughing and sharing a drink. Trump’s immaculate white shirt makes him the focus of the painting, whilst others, like a good-humoured Gerald Ford or a happy-to-be-here HW Bush, recline in the background. Others look on with a hint of envy at the proceedings at the table.
The artist, Andy Thomas, is based in Carthage, Missouri, and his painting found its way into the White House courtesy of a California congressmen, Darrell Issa. Thomas’s work focuses on the American Civil War and the history of the Presidency, and the painting that now hangs in Trump’s White House — ‘The Republican Club’ — is part of a series that includes ‘The Democratic Club’, as well as twin paintings depicting the Republican and Democrat presidents playing pool, and a further pair at the poker table.
Whilst all of Thomas’s work is undeniably and intentionally kitsch, the clubhouse series represents a high watermark in terms of his use of impressionism and abstraction. The backgrounds, particularly, seem intended to evoke Belle Époque French impressionist paintings, with the high ceilings, round arches, and twinkling lights. It looks more Moulin Rouge than Mar-a-Lago.
But the clubhouse (or the idea of the clubhouse) is an American classic, as are pool and poker. There are few painting traditions that America can stake a more compelling claim to than kitsch, the basis of Americana from pop art like Roy Lichtenstein’s ‘Drowning Girl’, via modernist takes like Grant Wood’s ‘American Gothic’, through Cassius Marcellus Coolidge’s ‘Dogs Playing Poker’ series. All are underlined by a sense of the kitsch. Thomas’s poker paintings are so entrenched in this mould that they’re hard to look at without imagining Reagan’s face swapped for a basset hound, or Clinton as a pipe-smoking St Bernard.
All of the locations that Thomas chooses are inherently private, save for the onlookers at the clubhouse. The poker game appears to be taking place after-hours at a convention hall, whilst the only spectators to the pool are matching portraits of George Washington, and miniaturised facsimiles of the poker series paintings. These are quiet places for fraternities of high powered men to gather and cut loose. Most are wearing polo shirts, or, at the very least, open necked shirts without ties. Some, like Clinton, have pulled their tie loose and rolled up their shirtsleeves as though they’ve just arrived from the office, whilst Truman is in full Hawaiian shirt. In the clubhouse paintings, it is Trump and Obama who match: both wearing white shirts but no jackets, and ties separated in style only by colour, blue for Obama, red for Trump.
But what of the figures themselves? There is a wilful idealisation here. Take, for example, the figure of Gerald Ford, lounging in the background in a blue shirt, arms crossed, laughing. Ford was 61 at the time of his inauguration, yet the figure is clearly younger. The same goes for the figure of Reagan (69 when he assumed the presidency) and even Nixon (56). Why, in this collage of presidents, are the depictions of some of the men taken before they took office? It necessarily encourages the interpretation that the vision is not simply of presidents but of men, men in their prime. There is a blurry, out of focus women in the background — but even she is wearing a shirt and suit jacket not dissimilar to Bush Snr’s or Nixon’s (what of her though? She also appears in ‘The Democratic Club’, slightly more in focus, as though she is quietly critiquing feminine exclusion from the image — Twitter speculation suggests that Thomas included her as the figure of an eventual female president, though I haven’t seen a direct quote supporting this). From the mushy milling crowd explodes a vision of masculinity, reinforced by, rather than stemming from, the most important job in the modern world.
Thomas’s focus is both political and painterly — he relegates presidents with historically low approval ratings and reputations, like Harding, Coolidge and Hoover, to the background, preferring to focus on recent presidents and those with an easy visual iconography, however controversial, like Lincoln, Nixon and Reagan. Most of the detail of the painting is solvable by easy Googling — for instance, the drinks roughly match the results for ‘what was INSERT NAME’s favourite drink?’, such as Trump’s Diet Coke, Nixon’s glass of Château Lafite, Eisenhower’s scotch and Reagan’s Orange Blossom Special (more details here). Indeed you can piece together many of the painting’s photographic sources by Google Image searching ‘INSERT NAME smiling’.
But, of course, this would all just be the imaginings of an obscure Missouri based painter, were it not for the presence of this painting in the White House. “One thing he specifically mentioned was he didn’t usually like portraits of himself,” Thomas told the New York Times. “But he said that he really liked that one.” Is this true? A 1989 portrait by Ralf Wolfe Cowan titled ‘The Visionary’ (sometimes amended to ‘The Entrepreneur’ for the sake of humility, though it makes no sense with the painting’s context) was recently discovered to still hang at Mar-a-Lago, looking not dissimilar to Thomas’s portrait of the president(s).
Thomas’s painting has been widely condemned as ‘tacky’ by Twitter, and further evidence of Trump’s classless, cultural degeneracy. It is undoubtedly a simple, unappealing work, painted in a lifeless vacuum and intended for little more than parish art fairs. But, as it was conceived, it speaks to the American ideal of the Presidency as a symbolic pasture of humanity — whilst this is a portrait of several figures, it feels more like a landscape, showing the undulating topography of American political history. America is singularly accomplished at transposing the portraits of its politicians into the physical landscape, with no better example than Mount Rushmore for capturing the complex artistic relationship between political leaders and the country they stand for. That’s the context of Thomas’s work as he envisaged it — an impersonal dreamscape — that has been oddly subverted by Trump’s acquisition of the painting. The piece has become a portrait of Donald Trump surrounded by past Republican presidents, which demonstrably wasn’t the artist’s intention. It has lost its bearings in history.
But, ultimately, the painting is not good enough to have a life outside of this mini news cycle. It does not hang over his desk in the Oval Office, but was simply a gift by a congressman that now hangs somewhere in the White House and was fleetingly captured on 60 Minutes. It is hung in a very simple frame, which does not have the President’s fingerprints on it at all. So, is it really an embarrassing indictment of Trump’s appreciation of art? Probably not. Is it illustrative of an arrogance that thinks himself a colleague of Lincoln? Probably not. But, in the end, is it a sign of a President insecure about his place in history? Probably.
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