IT'S UNLIKELY THAT Donald Trump is fretting over his presidential portrait. With further legal troubles and several industries turned against him, the man has bigger fish to fry. But as we’ve learned time and time again through the ravages of the coronavirus and police violence, just because Trump isn’t worried about something doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. The unconfirmed, though expected, portrait offers a chance for him to shape a legacy that is in dire need of salvaging. Trump’s painting could serve to underscore—or attempt to elide—the unconventional nature of his time in office, potentially adding a glossy filter to a difficult period in American history. Of course, filtering is more than part and parcel of portraiture. It’s the very nature of the job.
Throughout the centuries, portraiture has been the province of the wealthy and, despite its biographical nature, is a genre that conceals nearly as much as it reveals. Louis XIV, another larger-than-life leader, exhibits this multiplicity of meaning all too well in his portraits. Painter Charles Poerson clothes Louis XIV in the garb of Jupiter—complete with lightning bolts in hand—to signify his victory over a series of nobility uprisings known as the Fronde. By shrouding the king’s humanity, Poerson makes Louis into someone divine, armed with greater might than mere mortals. Who needs the imago dei when you can simply be God? A different portrait replaces the gouty king’s legs with the calves of a younger man. In short, the sovereign portrait is synonymous with a kind of psychological trompe l’oeil, created to preserve power and project glory. American presidential portraits differ in their ends, though they are invested in other kinds of self-delusion: equality and equanimity.