Member Portraits 101: Not Any Old Commission

Posted February 8, 2005 at 5:43pm

Only relatively recently did the Senate get into the business of commissioning paintings of its living alumni.

In 2000, it created the Senate Leadership Portrait Collection, which aims to build a comprehensive artistic collection of former GOP and Democratic Senate leaders, either through commissions or acquisitions, said Senate Curator Diane Skvarla. The collection was inspired by the Senate “Leader’s Lecture Series,” established by then-Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), and the fact that the Senate already honored vice presidents with marble busts, but had no similar collection in place for leadership.

The portraits of ex-Majority Leaders George Mitchell (D-Maine) and Bob Dole (R-Kan.) — Mitchell’s was recently completed, and Dole’s is under way — are the first to be carried out since the collection’s founding. Once a more formalized process is in place later this year, former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Sens. Lott and Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) will be in line for commissions or acquisitions.

“The feeling among most curators is that we should do them as soon as possible after they leave [the leadership] office,” she said, though the Senate Commission on Art has yet to officially approve a policy allowing sitting Members who are former leaders (such as Lott) to have portraits painted. This contrasts with a much more stringent rule for non-leadership Senators: A Senator must have been out of office or deceased for at least 21 years before a painting will be commissioned.

Artists who agree to paint for Congress must be willing to endure extra oversight, especially on the Senate side, where they must first be vetted by a panel of experts before finalists are passed to the ex-leader for consideration. This panel may include some personal or professional associates of the Senator. While the leader typically gets his first choice, nothing can proceed until the full Senate Commission on Art approves the selection.

Throughout the creation of an artwork, it is closely monitored, down to the exact size of the portrait, Skvarla said, adding that the Senate reserves the right to pull out of the contract at any point.

To ensure the overall integrity of the Senate collection, Skvarla is also careful to invite artists to tour the Capitol and inspect Senate artwork before they begin. “If we have a Senator’s portrait done, we want them to look Senatorial,” she said, adding with a laugh: “You wouldn’t want them skiing or surfing.”

After Maine artist Alan Magee completed Mitchell’s portrait in November, Skvarla and Alan Fern, the former director of the National Portrait Gallery and a member of the Senate Curatorial Advisory Board, even traveled to Cushing, Maine, to see it in person and to discuss framing possibilities. No shortcoming — including the definition between Mitchell’s fingers, which Fern thought should be more accentuated — was too small to correct.

On the House side of the Capitol, where depictions of former Speakers and committee chairmen — unlike Speakers’ portraits these are funded through private committees — can be commissioned during their lifetimes, the process is generally less formal (although some procedures are in place). While the House Fine Arts Board must approve any commissions or acquisitions, the Member has traditionally been given a strong hand in selecting the artist. (Two years ago, the post of House curator, who now oversees portraits on behalf of the Fine Arts Board, was established.)

When the finished product is presented to the House, the Fine Arts Board has the right to reject the painting, but most artists interviewed said that at least in the past oversight of their work was relatively light. If it weren’t, “I would never accept that,” said Robert McCurdy, a New York artist who painted the Budget Committee portrait of Rep. Martin Sabo (D-Minn.), a former chairman.