Back in the 60’s, my mother had a portrait painted of her children. The three eldest, that is. I was 6, my sister 3, my brother 2. The painter tried several times to cover up my brother’s diaper, but couldn’t. The diaper stayed, my arm got tired, and my sister and now I fall about laughing about how, well, piggie she looked. She no longer looks one bit porcine, but she’s captured forever as, um, piggie.
Family portraits play an storied role in High WASP families. Especially since we didn’t have cameras back when. Local talent included Gilbert Stuart, 1755-1828, who painted many notable early Americans. The Age of Innocence relied on John Singer Sargent, 1856-1925. My father believes the Privilege family portrait was modeled on this.
Singer, unfortunately, was not available to paint for us. However a man named Aaron Shikler was. As is often true in lives of privilege, we, wholly without intent, bumped into someone who then bumped into someone else extraordinary. Five years later, Shikler was to paint this.
Which now hangs in the White House as JFK’s official portrait.
What do I think about having our family share a portrait painter with the Kennedys? The same thing I think about other things we share with them. My father went to Harvard, some years before Jack. My mom played softball at the Kennedy Cape Cod compound. It feels cool, as though some of their import rubbed off on us. Even though it didn’t. Privilege sometimes lands you in the vicinity of special. You get a better view, not necessarily a place on the playing field. Oh, and apparently Teddy cheated.
Why paint a family portrait, even without Presidential connection? Beyond status or privilege or simple representation? In the era of digital photography, which has led to a proliferation of images unseen since the Russians stopped iconifying saints? Recently Materfamilias wrote very movingly about the portrait she found from her youth. The degree to which the drawing of her young face reminded her she had been more beautiful than she knew. The Privilege family painting, on the other hand, provokes not one whit of profound feeling in its subjects. We fall about laughing. I think there’s a place for both reactions.
I imagine, as I write, that our parents feel something more. Portraits show intent. You “sit” for them, over several weeks at least. No wonder I complained my arm hurt. However, the intention itself is open to interpretation. All one can say for sure is, “Yes, we did that on purpose.”
Oddly, my siblings and I find most meaning in Shikler’s painterly habit of getting things wrong. I do not have now, and did not have then, hair like a wild animal. In this painting I always will. Portraits create distortions of reality that become part of the told history. Which is, I suppose, as good a definition of art as any.
Decades later, Mom checked to see if Shikler would paint my youngest sister too. But his services now run dear. Presidential commissions will do that to a fellow. So Mom had a lovely charcoal sketch done. Which looks just like my sister. Beautiful. It hangs in Mom’s bedroom, as do piggies, diapers, and fierce hair.
Shikler himself continues to get better, as a painter. Capturing exhaustion and pre-teens pretty darn well.
If your family fortune is intact or (thank goodness) on the increase, there could be worse ways to invest your time and money. And maybe one of your children will, in fact, become President.