Published On: Wed, Mar 4th, 2015

Monica Lewinsky’s Presence Looms in Bill Clinton’s Presidential Portrait, Painter Admits

Painter Nelson Shanks admits to working with a mannequin wearing a Lewinsky-like dress to create the mysterious shadow in Bill Clinton's Presidential portrait

clinton + monica dress

In the past week, the main controversy over a blue dress was a Facebook puzzle over whether it is actually blue rather than white and gold. This Facebook contest may call to mind another questionable blue dress, albeit one that caused much more furore and had an impact on U.S. history. The blue dress, of course, was worn by Monica Lewinsky and was a smoking gun symbolizing the sex, lies and impeachment that has characterized a significant portion of President Bill Clinton’s legacy.

Demonstrating how the Lewinsky affair cast a shadow on the history of the Clinton Presidency, painter Nelson Shanks actually put a shadow of the dress in the eight foot tall Presidential portrait that is displayed in the National Portrait Gallery. The shadow has been a mystery since the portrait was created in 2001, because it didn’t seem to be cast by anything in the portrait depicting President Clinton standing in front of a mantel.

Shanks, age 77,  admitted in an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer that the shadow was meant to refer to Lewinsky, and he used a model of a mannequin wearing a similar dress when President Clinton was not posing. He told the newspaper, “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. It is also a bit of a metaphor in that it represents a shadow on the office he once held, or on him.” Another omission, which was not accidental, is that President Clinton is not wearing a wedding ring.

Although other Presidents have been caught in untruths (Reagan and Iran Contra affair, anyone?) about matters perhaps much more grave, but much less arresting than sex, Shanks said it was difficult for him to capture Clinton’s image in a portrait without referring to the Lewinsky affair in the painting. “The reality is, he’s probably the most famous liar of all time … He and his administration did some very good things, of course, but I could never get this Monica thing out of my mind and it is subtly incorporated in the painting.”

Of course, social and political commentary in art is nothing new, with Spanish painters such as Velazquez providing subtle, visual hints about how he regarded his patrons to Shakespeare flattering Queen Elizabeth here and there in the texts of his plays. Shanks claims that the Clintons despise the portrait and want it removed from the National Portrait Gallery, however, a spokesman for the gallery say the Clintons have made no comments about it and have not requested it be taken down.

Shanks said, “There are times when I used to play all kinds of complicated games in painting. But I think this is one case where I have to be fairly straightforward. I’ll just try to paint the man, his intelligence, his amiability, and his stature, maybe paint him fairly close to humor and try to get it right.”

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