Much ado about painting

Much (too much?) is being made of the non-typical portrait of former Gov. Lincoln Chafee unveiled recently.

Gov. Lincoln Chafee by Julie Gearan (via GoLocalProv)
The portrait has a dreamy, almost impressionist quality to it, very different from the more representational life-captures attempted by artists of previous governors (see GoLocalProv's slideshow here).

Portrait styles do tend to change over time. From 1775 to 1860, the governors were seated in their portraits. William Sprague, in office 1860-1863, was shown on a horse. It was the Civil War era, after all.

For the next 20 years, the Governors are all seated, until 1883, when Augustus O. Bourn got up to stand beside his chair. John W. Davis sat back down in 1887 and it took another 12 years before Charles Lippitt stood up.

Governors alternated between standing and sitting, in varying levels of visual crispness, until standing became the style, roundabout 1903. Governors weren't seated again until Gov. San Souci sat down again in 1921.

They were standing in the 30s, sitting in the 40s (the Roosevelt years), until 1951 when Gov. Dennis J. Roberts leaned on the corner of his desk. That's when backgrounds got interesting. We had desks, doors, fireplaces, and in the case of John H. Chafee, the view out an arched window.

After that, standing behind the Governors' desk became the thing to do. American flags started showing up in 1969, with brief breaks for Govs. Garrahy and Sundlun. Sundlun was painted outdoors, apparently on a beach at sunrise. It's worth noting that, to date, only one Rhode Island governor, John A. Notte, Jr., has been painted with the Rhode Island flag in the portrait.

American flags came back with Govs. Almond and Carcieri. It was post-9/11, so that's not surprising. Both men were shown seated.

And now we have the Lincoln Chafee painting. It's different, in that it's darker than previous paintings of the 20th century, though no darker than Robert Quinn's from 1939. He was Governor during the Depression.  The style isn't photorealistic, but neither were those of Del Sesto, Notte, John Chafee or Licht. As opposed to DiPrete and Carcieri, who were practically painted in HD.

L. Chafee doesn't face the painter. He's staring off, presumably to a brighter future (note where the light is coming from, and that his gaze is to the right). He's outdoors. Both aren't typical poses, but they're not unheard-of in the history of Rhode Island gubernatorial portraits.

So what does all this have to do with the price of eggs? I don't know. I think you take from art what you bring to it.


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