The recent publication of a book by the White House photographer, Pete Souza,and the concurrence of two exhibitions at the Royal Academy and the Queen’s Gallery have made me wonder what President Obama’s resident court photographer might have taught the Stuarts. Both Charles I and Charles II used visual images to enhance their authority at a time when artists were transferring the language of religious and classical art to the court. The former can be seen in their use of ceiling paintings, ceremonial canopies and quasi-religious family portraits; the latter in their portrayal of triumphal arches and processions. Artists lent additional gravitas to royal weddings, coronations and engagements through allegory, gesture, movement, light and colour. This theatrical approach coincided with the development of different kinds of imagery to represent rulers in their public and private moments. Throughout Europe the phenomenon was mirrored by the appointment of offices such as the Master of the Bedchamber and the Minister of Finance. It was also fetishised in the ritual of the monarch’s procession to church and withdrawal into a private pew.
In Protestant England the introduction of baroque devices from Catholic Europe was inevitably controversial. Elizabeth had used the virginal imagery of the Queen of Heaven to underpin her monarchy. In the Eikon Basilike Charles I’s execution was portrayed as a via dolorosa in a book that went through 35 editions. Henrietta Maria, Catherine of Braganza and Mary of Modena were all Catholics and favoured Catholic artists. Even Catherine Hyde, James II’s first Protestant wife, commissioned Lely to include the Countess of Gramont as St Catherine and Nell Gwynne as St Agnes among his 11 ‘Windsor beauties’. Meanwhile the use of prints for propaganda had greatly increased during the divisive Civil Wars and Commonwealth and became even more pronounced after the Restoration. Pepys alone owned 42 images of Charles II. The two attempts on his life, the Popish Plot and the Rye House conspiracy, were both commemorated by the printing of playing cards. Prints were probably also used as templates for ceramic souvenirs of the coronation and to explain the need to stay in the city and to bury the dead at night during the Plague. Less successful was Wenceslaus Hollar’s portrayal of London Before and After the Fire through the clumsy device of erasing a few church steeples from his earlier plate. This failure reflects the absence of a visual language in which to present a city which had lost 85% of its buildings. Photo- journalists during the Blitz got round this through anecdotal images such as milkman delivering milk. Pete Souza resorts to an even simpler expedient of photographing Obama in front of emergency services.
In this context Charles II’s easy tactile charm, like that of Obama, is in marked contrast to that of his ever-miserable father. The Merry Monarch’s ‘Christ in Majesty’ coronation portrait is untypical and can be compared to the informality of Obama as a serial abuser of office furniture. During his reign Charles II touched 10,000 of his subjects for ‘the king’s evil while Obama – when not fist-bumping injured veterans or passing members of the White House staff – is shown hugging people in 25 of the photographs. Meanwhile the telescoping of the distance between leader and led is demonstrated by the image of Obama dancing with his wife two days after his inauguration. When Charles was portrayed at a ball on the eve of his return to England, Pepys estimated that he had 17 mistresses.
In the dozen photographs that show the president with the military, the relationship seems complex. Pete Souza captures the traditional image of a royal apotheosis as the presidential couple disappears into the blue belly of Air force One. In a photograph that recalls Charles I’s painting by Titian of Alfonso d’Avalos addressing his troops, Souza positions himself looking up at the president as he delivers his rock-star address to cheering troops at Camp Victory. In contrast he presents the soldiers as if seated above him as they listen to Obama’s sober announcement of his decision to send more troops to Afghanistan. Where possible, he pictures the president among women soldiers and junior ranks. Yet during the live monitoring of the mission against Bin Laden, he shows Obama side-lined anxiously among the top brass. I counted more than 30 pictures that focus on Obama’s skills as a team-player and nearly a dozen of him as an isolated figure in a sombre moment of decision-making. Not only does the Bin Laden photograph conflate the two, it contrasts a chilling portrait of the fourteen-year old Charles as a martial figure callously surveying the battle field around him.
Moreover such photographs pose the question of how much any American president can slay real-life dragons and the extent to which he is largely a figurehead in moments of crisis comforting the victims of floods, fires, shootings and terrorist incidents. Compare, for example, Ruben’s casting of Charles I as St George with Obama’s meeting with the 83 year-old survivor of a mid-west deluge. Two women perch like apocryphal nymphs on the bonnet of a car while an equally heraldic figure clutches a flag. Like the images of Obama at the Martin Luther King Monument, in the Rosa Parks’ bus or crossing the historic bridge at Selma, the photograph seems almost overloaded with allusions. It seems a million miles from those of the president sliding across the counter to greet the workers at the Shake Shack or mischievously tipping the scales of one of his assistants as he weighs himself. Yet if not all the 320 images in the book have been deliberately constructed, each appears carefully chosen to affirm a different aspect of the president’s PR image.
Among other categories, I counted 40 showing the president with his family and 18 of him waving a fishing rod, a golf club or a basketball above his head. Several show him competing with his aides in ways that recall the Stuarts’ displaying their horsemanship as a metaphor for their ability to rule. As so often, these imitate other portraits by as in Titian and Rubens. Given the precedent of Nixon’s electoral broadcast with Spot the dog, it is not surprising that five are photographs of cosy, canine domesticity. It is interesting here to compare them to the Stuarts’ love of fairy-tale beasts, which themselves recall the massive, vinegary hunting dogs of Titian and Velasquez.
As a constant presence at the White House, shooting hundreds of thousands of pictures a year and with a recycle time of only 0.14 seconds, it might seem that Pete Souza has all the advantages. For example, he is able to respond quickly when the president drops Hillary Clinton’s briefing notes or in the myriad unrehearsed photographs of Obama larking around with children. This gives Souza’s pictures an intimate quality that is the opposite of the distancing effect of the Stuart ‘carpet-and-curtains’ paintings – a device that is itself a legacy of religious baldacchini. In contrast look at the way Souza pulls back an actual curtain to show Obama behind-the-scenes before a speech, framed in a doorway or wrestling with his bow-tie in a lift. These off-duty moments seem as artless as the ‘family snaps’ of him enjoying a TV dinner, playing with his daughters or romancing Michelle.
Obama’s rolled up sleeves belie his pin-sharp elegance just as his occasional display of a dorky sense of humour conceals his formidable intelligence. Michelle Obama is the perfect accomplice in portraying him as an ordinary average Joe. Yet he is constantly aware of and responding to his surroundings. Look at his mirroring of the body language of Pope Francis, the King of Saudi Arabia, the Dalai Lama or Angela Merkel. He looms over President Putin and Benjamin Netanyahu and only seems uncomfortable when leaning in a doorway, uncertain as whether to appear taller or shorter than rival arch-communicator, Bill Clinton. For the record Charles I was 5’4; Putin is 5’ 7’’; Obama is 6’ 1’’; Clinton is 6’1.5’’ and Donald Trump is 6’2’’. Yet, as ever, Pete Souza is there to work his magic in a photograph of him with Trump when he shoots Donald at an angle to make him slightly smaller.
In an age of fake news such simple approaches seem more authentic than the trickery that the public has come to associate with digital photography. So too does the mixing of the rhetoric of official portraits with the deliberate cheesiness of the family album. Souza presents Obama in a liminal space between the formal and the informal, the statesman’s portrait and the instagram selfie. More cunningly still, he reveals the joints between the two. The best example of this is when he captures Obama just before his inauguration, smiling self-deprecatingly at his immaculate image in a mirror.
What is telling is that much of the same is true of the best of the Stuart portraits. Rubens, Van Dyck and Lely all imitated Titian in their brushwork and in their use of poses that convey tactile values. This can be seen clearly in Van Dyck’s focus on the hands of his figures as they twist their chains and pendants between their fingers. All four artists probably took from Flemish tapestries the trick of placing reality at one remove. Indeed, my favourite painting at the Royal Academy is Titian’s Mars and Venus of 1580-85 in which he presents the landscape behind the couple as a tapestry. The embroidered flowers on the textile pick up the painted flowers on the skirt while both are echoed by the curling border between the two. If you look carefully, you will see that all three realities come together just to the right of the goddess where Mars is helpfully peeling or unpeeling Venus’s robe. Pete Souza himself might acknowledge it as an analogy for the way in which his own photographs mix reality and illusion. Yet in his case he would probably argue that – unlike whichever Republican has become his successor as a court painter, at least we know who is sitting on the president’s knee.