The formal portrait is one of the most significant tools presidents use to shape their legacies after leaving office.
Presidential portraits not only tell the stories of the president. They also influence, control and sometimes reshape posterity’s judgement of his administration, said Paul Staiti, Alumnae Foundation Professor of Fine Arts in the Mount Holyoke College art history department.
In a recent opinion piece in The Washington Post, Staiti, a renowned scholar on the intersection between American fine arts and politics, argued that although Barack Obama’s official portrait has yet to be created, “the occasion will be momentous.” It will usher the former president into a long line of his predecessors who worked for “the civil rights that made Obama’s election possible … and stand as a permanent rebuke to all those who stoked the flames of racism.”
Staiti’s 2016 book, “Of Arms and Artists: The American Revolution Through Painters’ Eyes,” discusses five eminent painters from the Revolutionary War era who transformed the turbulence of their time into enduring works of art.