About a week before Christmas, on a particularly slow news day, Drudge posted a photo of Hillary Clinton that had the blogosphere all abuzz. Ann Althouse gathered and summarized the relevant lines of commentary. It seems that some were shocked by Hillary’s weathered appearance, but some were shocked that others were shocked. Some, like Volokh, liked her look, but others didn’t and poked around in search of a double standard. Still others maintained that attention to unflattering photos is nothing new and not aimed only at candidates who are women. By way of contrast and context, Althouse also reproduces a photo provided by one of her readers.
Those lines of inquiry and speculation are interesting, but seeing this photo reminded me of an article by the art historian Sheldon Nodelman. In “How to Read a Roman Portrait”, Art in America 63 (Jan/Feb 1975), pp. 26-33, Nodelman turns to the heyday of Roman portrait sculptures and asks why some of them seem strikingly naturalistic and unflattering while others seem notably idealized. What he has in mind is the contrast between the portraits such as this anonymous bust from ca. 80BC, now in the Palazzo Torlonia in Rome, Roman Republican portrait bust and this bust of Caesar Augustus from 50 to 70 years later, now in the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University.
Nodelman argues that the unforgiving portrait style was strongly tied to Roman Republican values, while the idealizing mode was a mark of Julian, Imperial values. He writes
Through emphasis on the marks of age, these men call attention to their long service to the state and their faithfulness to constitutional procedures, in intended contrast to the meteoric careers and dubious methods of the individualistic faction-leaders– men like Marius and Sulla, Pompey and Caesar, later Antony and Octavian– whose ambitions and rivalries in the quest for personal power were rending the fabric of the republic.
The notion here is that the naturalism of the Roman Republican portrait suggests the battle-scarred character and immanent service of the person thus portrayed, while the idealism of the Roman Imperial portrait hints at the superhuman character and transcendent origin of the person shown. Age well earned stands in contrast to perpetual, effortless youth.
We’re a far cry from ancient Rome, of course. Neither the cultural conventions nor the political circumstances make a ready match with the United States of the early 21st century. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder whether some such ideological mapping makes sense in the current political season’s wash of portrait imagery.
Among the currently viable candidates for the presidency, only McCain directly thematizes his worn and weathered condition. His self-description as more scarred than Frankenstein[’s monster] suggests a connection to values such as those the pre-imperial Roman elite chose to emphasize. In contrast, much has been made of Romney’s corporate polish, and the candidate himself has emphasized jokingly the importance of not mussing his carefully sprayed hair. On the Republican side, then, the McCain/Romney competition might be understood to break out on lines analogous to those that Nodelman defines.
If, on the Democratic side, Obama seems to fit the role of young, polished, and glowing, perhaps an emphasis on the somewhat wizened Hillary rather than the airbrushed, pore-free Hillary would serve well her goal of drawing a rich contrast.