The artist responsible for a portrait of Bill Clinton in Washington’s National Portrait Gallery says he painted a hint of the Monica Lewinsky scandal onto the canvas.
Nelson Shanks, of south-east Pennsylvania, told the Philadelphia Daily News that while painting a portrait of the former president, “I could never get this Monica thing” – meaning the president’s sexual tryst with a White House intern and subsequent lies about said liaison – “completely out of my mind and it is subtly incorporated in the painting.”
“If you look at the left-hand side of it there’s a mantle in the Oval Office and I put a shadow coming into the painting and it does two things,” Shanks said. “It actually literally represents a shadow from a blue dress that I had on a mannequin, that I had there while I was painting it, but not when he was there.”
Lewinsky’s stained blue dress itself became a symbol of the scandal during the 1990s.
The shadow “is also a bit of a metaphor in that it represents a shadow on the office he held, or on him,” Shanks said.
Bill Clinton looking up at his portrait during its unveiling at the Smithsonian Castle Building in Washington. Photograph: Haraz N Ghanbari/AP
While a literal shadow cast on the president’s office by the unseen scandal may not be the most complex or oblique of metaphors, Shanks may have resorted to the imagery because he found it “hard” to capture Clinton as a man. The painting also does not show Clinton wearing a wedding ring.
“The reality is he’s probably the most famous liar of all time,” Shanks said. Clinton was particularly nervous to be painted, he said: “Oh, he was petrified.”
The portrait is not currently on display at the National Portrait Gallery but remains in the collection.
Lewinsky has recently re-emerged into public life after years of silence, and was nominated for a National Magazine Award in January for a first-person essay in Vanity Fair titled Shame and Survival. Hillary Clinton said last year that she has “moved on” from the Lewinsky scandal and wished her well.