NYMag Art Critic on CNN: WH Painting Represents 'That Kind of Old, Very White Male America'

During Monday’s CNN Tonight, host Don Lemon discussed a portrait of President Trump alongside previous Republican Presidents with New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz. According to Lemon, the image has received “a whole lot of attention” after Lesley Stahl conducted an interview with President Trump for CBS’s 60 Minutes in the private residence at the White House, where the painting was hung on the wall. Somehow, the topics of race and Joseph Stalin managed to come up in the discussion of the portrait.

Saltz complained that the painting did not represent an accurate portrayal of President Trump’s physical appearance: “He’s shed about 40 pounds, he’s got sort of a washboard chest I had no idea.” When Saltz remarked that President Trump’s “hands are teeny,” Lemon broke out in laughter. And yet the media still thinks President Trump is the juvenile one.

Saltz also said that when he first saw the painting, he thought “it might be a dogs playing poker painting.” Upon closer inspection, he realized that “it’s a bunch of presidents and then I made out that it’s Lincoln, the Bushes, et cetera.” In spite of his initial impression of the painting totally missing the mark, he described it as a “really good illustration.”

Saltz also found a way to invoke Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, describing the painting as an example of “social realism,” which “Stalin used a lot of.” Saltz then gave some more contemporary examples of artists who practice social realism; Norman Rockwell and Thomas Kinkade.

Eventually, Saltz brought up how the painter of the image, called “the Republicans’ Club,” described his upbringing as “a Leave it to Beaver like childhood in Missouri.” Then, out of nowhere, Saltz brought race into the conversation saying that the painting represents “that kind of old, very white male America.” Saltz’s criticism of the painting and the painter should not have come as that much of a surprise, considering the fact that he openly talked about his disdain for Republicans during an appearance on MSNBC in 2014; where he trashed President George W. Bush, who had decided to take up painting in his post-presidency.



After Lemon and Saltz discussed how President Trump probably liked the picture because he was at the center of it, Saltz also wondered “what would have happened had Obama put the same painting in the White House of himself having a great dinner with the Founding Fathers.” Andy Thomas, the painter of “the Republican Club” also painted a portrait of President Obama with former Democratic Presidents, living and dead, called “the Democratic Club.” Not surprisingly, Lemon and Staltz wondered why President Trump decided not to hang “the Democratic one” in the private residence.

A transcript of the relevant portion of CNN Tonight is below. Click “expand” to read more.

CNN Tonight With Don Lemon


11:49 PM

DON LEMON: President Trump made headlines during his 60 Minutes interview, but one image is getting a whole lot of attention. I want you to check out this…look, it’s…that we got inside the private residence. All right. Anything stand out to you? Take a look a little closer. There you go. There is a painting on the wall of President Trump sitting at a table, drinking and laughing with former Republican presidents like Lincoln, Nixon, Reagan and Eisenhower. They are drinking but it looks like Lincoln is a plain water kind of guy. The glass next to President Trump probably has his favorite drink which is Diet Coke, of course. So, what is the deal with this piece of art? It’s called “The Republican Club” and it was painted by Missouri-based artist Andy Thomas. It was apparently a gift to President Trump from California Congressman Darrell Issa.

ANDY THOMAS: I actually had gotten a call a couple of weeks ago from President Trump and that was a real highlight. Darrell Issa was there and so was Vice President Pence. And so that was quite a treat. I didn’t think he was going to call, but he said that he’d seen a lot of paintings of me and most of them he didn’t like, but that he liked what I’d done. He was very…he was very gracious and kind.

LEMON: Well, Thomas said some presidents have a natural smile. But according to him, Donald Trump and some others have more of a forced smile that doesn’t look quite right in a painting. So, how did he paint Trump’s smile? Here’s what the artist told CNN.

THOMAS: I always try to make the presidents look as nice as I can. I want to still look like him, but I want to flatter him if I can. I want him to be happy. So, I looked for a good smile. President Trump was another challenge because he’s…even though he tans, he’s a fair…has a fair complexion and no deep recesses. And so, you know, he’s a very subtle person to paint. And the face I painted on there is actually the second face. The first one I painted I was happy with, but it wasn’t a, it wasn’t a real…it wasn’t the smile we usually see. He’s a challenge to paint. You know, he has different looks and different profiles. So, all I know is he said he liked what I’d done, and that made me feel great.

LEMON: So, over the years, the artist has created four paintings featuring American presidents, to each of the political parties, I should say. So here’s the Democrat one. It’s called “the Democratic Club.” It features President Obama alongside other Democratic presidents. Another thing that you may notice in both paintings is the exact same subtle shadowy figure hovering in the background. You see, right in the background there? There you go. Who is she? The artist says she represents the first female president approaching the table as either the first female Republican president or the first female Democratic president. So there you go, mystery solved. Let’s get more mysteries solved now. Jerry Saltz is here. He is a senior art critic of New York Magazine. It’s so good to have you on.

JERRY SALTZ: Great to be on.

LEMON: Thank you. You won a Pulitzer just this year, right?  

SALTZ: I did.

LEMON: So what did you think…what was your initial impression of this?

SALTZ: Well, my first impression is I didn’t even recognize it as Trump. He’s shed about 40 pounds. He’s got sort of washboard chest I had no idea. The coat is not on, which usually covers everything. The hands are teeny, but that…no. But then I thought it might be a dogs playing poker painting. And then it kind of came into focus that it’s a bunch of presidents and then I made out that it’s Lincoln, the Bushes, et cetera. It’s a really good illustration but actually is not a painting that you’re seeing. This is a print of the painting. The actual painting is still down in Missouri.

LEMON: Oh, so it’s not. That’s not the one that’s…

SALTZ: No, it’s in a little kind of cheap frame, in the White House, is what makes it so weird.

LEMON: Jerry, you got a lot out of that painting. I looked at it, and I said, where are the Democrats? And then I realized there was one for the Democrats and one for the…

SALTZ: He did do one.

LEMON: But listen, you can’t fault him for that because he says he tries to make every…you know, he tries to make every president look good. Our promo pictures here are us at our bests, if you see journalists or, you know, reporters or hosts.

SALTZ: I get it. You’re supposed to flatter when you’re painting a portrait.

LEMON: Yeah.

SALTZ: That’s the job of the portrait painter. This is sort of like something we call social realism. It’s not uncommon in political painting. Stalin used a lot of it. But it’s like old west painting, Norman Rockwell, Thomas Kinkade. On his own web site…

LEMON: I didn’t even think about Thomas Kinkade, you’re right.

SALTZ: Yeah, the artist calls himself a…he had a “Leave it to Beaver” like childhood in Carthage, Missouri.

LEMON: Right.

SALTZ: And I thought in a way that’s what this particular painting represents, that kind of old, very white male America. First, I thought it was Kamala Harris coming up.

LEMON: Okay, okay. So, you say that. It’s funny because when I looked it and they said this was…if I looked at it, I said it kind of looks like Kamala Harris. I mean it does, right? But it’s a shadowy figure, but it does look like her. He said the President liked the painting so much that he called him to rave about it. Why do you think he liked it so much, because it’s flattering or…

SALTZ: Well, he did…

LEMON: It’s a power…it shows…it’s kind of power. He’s actually…you can tell that he is…if we can put both of them up …he is sort of the center, the focus, here. I’m not sure if you can tell on the Democratic.

SALTZ: The conversation seems to be the most interesting people at the table are Lincoln and Trump sharing something, and everyone else is reacting. Trump liked the picture of himself. He hangs it in the White House. It might have been nice for him to also hang the Democratic one. But it’s just odd. I wonder what would have happened had Obama put the same painting in the White House of himself having a great dinner with the Founding Fathers and…

LEMON: Yeah.

SALTZ: I’m not sure. It’s good for the artist. It is…

LEMON: Really good for the artist.

SALTZ: Yeah.

LEMON: Yeah, let me tell you, his name is Andy Thomas. He is a Missouri native as you said. He’s clearly…he was clearly thrilled to hear from the President and to have the President display his works. At the end of the day, it’s a nice thing for the artist, and artists are often struggling, right?

SALTZ: It’s a great thing for the artist. It’s a tiny little crumb on what’s going on now, and it’s a fun little genre conversation piece moment.

LEMON: Yeah, maybe he can paint us.

SALTZ: That could be good.

LEMON: Because I could lose 10 or 15. Thank you very much, Jerry Saltz. Thank you. I appreciate your time.

SALTZ: Thank you for having me.

LEMON: Thank you. Absolutely. Thanks for watching. Our coverage continues.

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