In April 2017 the “official” First Lady portrait of Melania Trump was released. Derided by some as an airbrushed, vaseline-lens-soft-focus yearbook-style photograph, the same portrait was lauded as by others as “glamorous”. For one thing, many complained, as Hannah Marriott points out in The Guardian, Mrs. Trump looks like a reality show judge, a “depressingly logical” outcome of the election.
I was struck by its familiarity: Melania has proven to be a clumsy plagiarist, fumbling to appropriate the American past with little skill or thought. She is caught lifting passages from Michelle Obama’s speeches, her outfits look like iconic styles from Jackie Kennedy, and she half-heartedly struggles to understand the role she finds herself in, as First Lady of the United States. So when I saw this portrait, I figured it had to be echoing past portraits. She may have used a photographer who specializes in “famous celebrity portraits”, but Melania’s tendency to look towards others for, to put it kindly, inspiration, had to have a role in her stylistic choices. (For this blog post, I used only images found in the official First Ladies gallery of the White House Historical Association, the group founded by Jackie Kennedy in her never-ending efforts to get more money to help update and decorate the White House. This group is the one supposed to coordinate your tour, if you get to go on one. Oddly, the website has not been updated with the new, trump presidency staff, nor does it include the new Melania portrait.)
Those choices: Melania selected a White House background. She is posing, as far as I can tell, in front of the West Wing Sitting Room window, seen here in 1992:
Nothing more traditional than that choice. Several first ladies have posed themselves with the White House in the background the White House — especially in the earlier years of the 20th century. Here is Edith Roosevelt looking like she owns the place (and bench), Helen Taft from the following presidency, and a glam Grace Coolidge several years later. The portico was a picturesque touch, wasn’t it?
Melania’s choice of black blazer struck a sour chord for critics, but again, she’s not veering from previous choices. Since dress is quite personal, we should expect that Melania’s choice of outfit reveals something of her sense of self, her dreams. Surprisingly, that black blazer, slightly open neckline, and “glitter” at the neck reflect three preceding first ladies: Barbara Bush, Hilary Clinton, and Michelle Obama.
It’s interesting that these three first ladies selected almost exactly the same outfit and similar posture (except for Clinton’s open-armed gesture towards the historical artifacts of her First Lady status): black, pearls, hands highlighted. Let’s add Melania into that sequence and yes, she sure looks like the rest of them, doesn’t she?
As many people have noted, the First Lady “job” is anachronistic, a role almost entirely unsuited for its time. It’s highly public, ceaselessly demanding, and little suited to contemporary marriages. Melania’s situation is unique in that her marriage appears, at least from the outside, to be stereotypically old-fashioned, a kind of odd Stepford-wife syndrome made real — a much older husband, the former “model”, now devoted mother and wife. She has dispensed with some of the aspects of the first lady job that nearly crushed Hillary Clinton and later, Michelle Obama. Melania refuses to live in the White House, has been historically slow at filling her staff, shows little interest in the daily aspects of being first lady. In some ways, those crossed arms tell the nation, No. No, she won’t be doing that.
The blue ladies (Lady Bird Johnson, who was saddled with the world’s most difficult husband, LBJ; Pat Nixon, married to the other world’s most difficult husband, Richard Nixon; Betty Ford, whose struggle with alcoholism and whose honesty about it revolutionized how the nation discussed addiction; Laura Bush, an introverted woman married to perhaps the most extroverted man other than Bill Clinton to serve as President). All four blue ladies were also unrelentingly demure and quiet — no matter how much fun Laura Bush might be as a person in private, in public she was acquiescent — and she managed to underplay her substantial accomplishments as first lady to a surprising degree. Lady Bird, Pat Nixon were quiet, unassuming women. Betty Ford has a bit more spunk in her, but she also tended to cloak herself in quietude.
The tone of Melania’s portrait suggests the larger political issues at work. Much of the dislike of the portrait is not aimed so much as the portrait as the post-camera effects: the airbrushing, photoshopping, the blurring of the edges, the exaggerated sharp focus on her face and hands while blurring the background into fuzzy shapes. For critics, this process of taking the real and rendering it fake, of blurring the national structure and focusing the attention on herself — those processes seem most trumpian and the least traditional. No matter the setting, no matter the point of the ritual or ceremony, there’s a nagging sense that for the trumps, what matters is what benefits the trumps – not the nation. It’s here that her portrait photographer, a woman skilled at presenting the very very wealthy of the world as they are in their own mind’s eye, reveals more than she intended about her camera’s subject, Melania Trump. It’s an empty portrait, an exercise in imitating others without grasping what made the original unique and valuable. You can lift another’s words and act as they are yours, you can look to others for models of how to behave, but being a person, being unique, carving out a role for one’s self, requires discipline, skill, thought, and attention. Or, you can airbrush the lines away and leave it at that.