The United States Capitol is draped in oil paintings of the lawmakers who have walked its corridors since the country’s beginnings. For generations, sitting for portrait painting sessions has been a tradition for members of Congress and select officials, alike, all paid for with taxpayer dollars – until now, that is.
For several years, the issue of who pays for oil portraits has been a minor, but persistent one in the U.S. Congress. While photographs of the Congressional Portrait Collection are available online, many of the paintings themselves are housed in parts of the Capitol blocked off to the general public. Since 2013, Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA) has argued that if politicians want to have a portrait painted for them, they should pay for it out of their own pockets. Now, Cassidy is finally getting his wish, thanks to an amendment in the latest federal budget, Jesse Guy-Ryan writes for Atlas Obscura.
“Families struggle to pay their mortgage and feed their families while the federal government spends money on paintings of government officials that are often placed in the back of a government bureaucracy, never to be seen by the public,” Cassidy tells Jennifer Steinhauer for the New York Times.
To be fair, the total price of these portraits costs tax payers less than $500,000, annually – chump change when one considers that the federal budget rests around $4 trillion. Lambasting this tradition as a money-wasting ego-boost for lawmakers isn’t by any means new. Back in 1977, President Jimmy Carter criticized the practice, arguing that the price tag of an oil painting was too much in an era where photography had become cheap and easy. The tradition continued, but politicians have been periodically raising the issue ever since.
“The expensive antiquated notion that all of these officials should get portraits is nonsense,” Steve Ellis, who represents Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group, tells Steinhauer. “A simple photograph would do. This is more about stroking egos than preserving history.”
It wasn’t until the 19th century that government offices began using public funds to pay for politicians' portraits, but taxpayer money has never been the sole source of payment for these artworks. Independent donors and interest groups often contribute thousands of dollars towards funding oil paintings of favored politicians, according to a 2010 blog post by the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit government transparency advocacy group.
Proponents of the practice argue that congressional portraits preserve history in a unique way – while photographs may preserve what a person looked like, many official government portraits contain little nods to historic events that characterized the subject's political career. One infamous example is a shadow that painter Nelson Shanks snuck into Bill Clinton's presidential portrait as an allusion to the Monica Lewinsky scandal, but that's far from the only piece given artistic license. While the official portrait of Thomas Peter Lantos (D-Calif.) may seem a bit silly at first for so prominently featuring his beloved pet poodle, Gigi, the small photograph in the background nods to Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who helped Lantos and his wife survive the Holocaust. While some oil portraits are our best documents for what early American political figures looked like, many modern pieces serve to commemorate important figures like Joseph Hayne Rainey (R-SC), the first black man elected to the U.S. House of Representatives or Jeannette Rankin (R-Montana), the first woman to join its ranks.
“The collection represents American history in many ways,” Senate curator Melinda K. Smith tells Steinhauer. “They are not just portraits. There is a story behind each one of them.”