Official portraits as art – and mirrors of change

Official Portrait of the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean by Ottawa artist Karen Bailey

Do you like art? A lot of us might answer that it really depends on our own gut reaction.

How about official portraits? Do they count as art? Much of the time, they come across as standard imagery – rituals of power or staid organizational structure.

I’m asking because this week Canada’s current Governor General, David Johnston, precided over the ceremonial unveiling of  the official portrait of his predecessor, Michaëlle Jean, the 27thGovernor General of Canada since confederation in 1867. Ottawa’s Karen Bailey was the artist.

Jean was not Canada’s first female Governor General, nor was she the first visible minority in that role. (For what it’s worth, “visible minority” is a Canadian term – yet another imperfect attempt to lable race and acknowledge diversity.)

Here’s a full list and brief bio of past Governors General. Wikipedia lists that function back to Governors of pre-confederation Canada here. How the job fits into Canada’s system of constitutional monarchy is outlined here.

It’s often awkward to discuss how looks affect perception. But it’s hard to deny that Michaëlle Jean is glamourous. I think it is fair to say her photogenic charisma ensured more attention than, say, David Johnston seemingly gets in the same role.

Jean’s official portrait also strikes a different mood. Here’s how the Ottawa Citizen describes it:

Painted by Ottawa artist Karen Bailey, it shows Jean surrounded by a dozen-and-a-half people, including her husband, Jean-Daniel Lafond, their adopted daughter Marie-Éden — visible twice in the painting, as the six-year-old she was when Jean was installed as governor general in 2005, and as an older, BlackBerry-toting youth — and their family dog, Shuka.

Also depicted are three medical personnel from the Role 3 military hospital in Kandahar, the governor general’s aide-de-camp, a Haida drummer, some children and a Second World War veteran.

Bruce Deachman’s article quotes Jean saying she didn’t want to be presented by herself “…simply because I never stood nor walked alone on this wonderful journey across our country.”

It can’t be easy to be the artist commissioned to do this sort of work. Follow convention, or go bold and daring? Whom to please? The individual sitter? The painter’s own artistic sensibilities? The nation at large?

And everyone’s a critic too. Consider the response to images like this one, a 2001 painting of Queen Elizabeth II – an eyeful of of age and impact. (Discussed at length here.)

Here is a Wikipedia article on the topic in regards to official portraits for U.S. presidents (scroll to the bottom for the image gallery). The article says Barack Obama was the first president to use a digital photograph (in 2009) for his official image. The traditional oil portrait of Obama will follow at the end of his presidency – be that one term or two.

I don’t have any big point to make. It’s just interesting to see ways artists approach this task and note how the end result reflects changes in art and society along the way.

And this painting? I rather like it.

Inclusiveness and representation of groups (‘veterans’, ‘youth’, ‘minorities’ etc.) can be taken too far. It’s easy to feel jaded and cynical about manipulative marketing.

But – setting aside any fans and critics – Michaëlle Jean really comes across as “a people person”. I’d say this portrait reflects that pretty well. (Or am I just swallowing the branding?)

Does it work for you as art?

Does it convey Jean’s time as Governor General?

Something I do enjoy about art is how each reaction is perfectly valid.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.



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9 Comments on “Official portraits as art – and mirrors of change”

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  1. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    A wonderful portrait. My only question is, how did it take so long for someone to do something so obvious?

  2. Peter Hahn says:

    Kinda hard to judge a painting from a web image.

  3. Bob Falesch says:

    “Does it work for you as art?” This is a much more important and interesting question than the more routine: “Do you think this is art?” The difference between these two questions is large and meaningful.

    Your context for this question is whether official portraits count as art. I would say that art is not generally the intention in official portraits, as it is not even so in personal portraits. But to get this out of the way: my answer is certainly that this painting of the Governor General does not work as “art” for me.

    As official portraits go, however, it is just super. It seems to tell a story – a sort of biography. I must say that, had I approached the canvass cold, I would have no idea what is being portrayed. Of course I’d recognize it as a representational style, which means I’m invited to look for a meaning or a story rather than “cop a feeling” or walk away somehow shocked, disturbed, or, if I’m lucky, transformed. Now that I know it’s her, I find myself touched by her humility and sense of inclusion which this painting intensifies nicely.

  4. Peter Hahn says:

    The National Portrait gallery in DC has all the portraits of the US presidents. The Bill Clinton one is pretty eye catching.

  5. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Bob, don’t be silly, portraits are art whether done by a fine portrait painter or photographer or a 5 year old with a crayon. A portrait isn’t simply an image of a person, there is an intent to convey some sort of meaning in a portrait, whether it is the status and accomplishment of a public figure or the feelings of the portrait maker toward the subject.

    You might argue that an accidental snapshot of a person isn’t art because there is no intent to convey meaning. Intent is the key. If a person intends to convey an idea of some kind or another then it is Art.

    Good art or bad art is a different question.

  6. Lucy Martin says:

    Peter, is this the presidential portrait collection you mean?

    Yes, that’s a fun walk through presidential and fashion history – though I wish the images would open up larger on my computer.

    There is a Portrait Gallery of Canada, sort of.

    That is, the collection exists. But it’s largely languishing in a warehouse. Politicians here have yet to agree if there should be a permanent space, and which city or building should get that distinction, if any.

  7. Peter Hahn says:

    Lucy – yes thats the collection, but in that catalogue, they have photos of the presidents (recent ones) but not the portraits. The Chuck Close portrait of Clinton takes up most of a wall and up close it dissolves into a bunch of bright colored spots. Richard Nixon’s portrait is by Norman Rockwell.

    Canada should put theirs on permanent display. From a historical perspective, its very interesting to see what they (which ever historical figures are there) looked like, and frequently they chose among the best portrait artists of their day.

  8. Bob Falesch says:

    Knuck, you could call it silly. I prefer to think of it as “provocative.” :)

    I don’t indulge in the “good art, bad art” discussion and never proclaim that a piece is either one or the other.

  9. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Yeah, value judgements are fraught with problems. Plenty of examples of artists who weren’t valued in their own time who are cherished by later generations. And as far as visual art goes I think it is hard to beat some of the cave paintings or rock art I’ve seen.

    How about “art I appreciate and art I don’t appreciate”?

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