(CNSNews.com) - Portraits of Senate leaders are almost always paid for with taxpayer money, at a cost of up to $70,000 each. By contrast, portraits of President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush – unveiled on Friday – were paid for with private donations.
The Washington Post reported Friday that Bush’s portrait cost $160,000 and Laura Bush’s, $40,000. The private donations for the Bushes’ portraits were made to a Smithsonian fund designated for the paintings, Bethany Bentley, a spokeswoman for the National Portrait Gallery, told CNSNews.com.
In the Senate, portraits traditionally are commissioned for the majority and minority leaders, and former members who have been out of the Senate for 25 years who are chosen by a special commission of the Senate Rules Committee, said Donald Ritchie, the Senate historian.
The funds for those paintings come from a taxpayer-funded curator’s budget, Senate Curator Diane K. Skvarla told CNSNews.com.
Skvarla said that while there is no legal cap on how much her office may pay for a lawmaker’s portrait, she has implemented an internal procedure that caps the taxpayer-funded price for paintings at $70,000.
If a lawmaker chooses an artist whose price exceeds $70,000, the lawmaker is asked to pay the difference, said Skvarla.
Skvarla said that the tradition of portraiture of U.S. government officials goes back more than 200 years and that many lawmakers think the tradition is a way to maintain continuity between offices.
Many federal agencies also commission portraits for their top officials, a spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) told CNSNews.com.
The Washington Post reported on Oct. 21 that NASA had commissioned a $25,000 portrait of former administrator Daniel S. Golden, and that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had paid $29,500 for a portrait of outgoing Secretary Stephen L. Johnson.
Ryan Alexander, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, told CSNews.com that while she does not necessarily object to portraiture for federal officials, she is concerned about the lack of guidelines.
“The portrait can provide tradition, history, and a link between the past and future of an agency,” said Alexander. “But not everyone needs to sit for oil painting. The issue is that the process is decentralized and there is little accountability. There are no real guidelines.”
Indeed, there are no guidelines on who can get a portrait or how much is spent on one, an OMB spokesman told CNSNews.com.
“It’s up to every agency’s budget—we don’t have specifics on such line items,” said the spokesman. “They have to fit them into their own budgets.”
President Jimmy Carter advised his Cabinet secretaries in 1977 to forego having their portraits done. In a memo to the secretaries, he wrote: “The Office of Management and Budget has informed me of an outdated practice, that I believe should be discontinued.
“As I understand it, past Cabinet Secretaries have commissioned oil portraits, at Government expense, as a method of maintaining an official, historical record of the line of succession of Cabinet Secretaries. Although the practice has existed for over a century, these portraits have become an unnecessary luxury costing anywhere from $6,000 to $12,000,” Carter wrote.
The portraits of the Bushes were unveiled at the National Portrait Museum, making him the first sitting president to see his likeness hung in the museum’s presidential exhibit.
The portrait contrasts with that of his father, George H.W. Bush, which hangs nearby. The 41st president strikes a stately pose as he stands near a formal table in a suit and red tie. His son, the 43rd president, sits on the edge of a couch at his Camp David get-away, his blue shirt slightly crumpled and tie-less.
Bush told the 500 or so people who gathered Friday to see his portrait unveiled that he had wanted the casual look and a “good and forgiving friend” to render it. Robert Anderson, Bush’s classmate at Yale, painted the portrait in oil using a computer to create a grid of the image and a dental tool to transfer the image onto the canvas.
Bush joked that Anderson did a good job on his hands and his eyes but seemed to have trouble with his mouth, “just like me,” Bush said.
“I suspected there would be a good-size crowd once the word got out about my hanging," Bush joked at the event.
Laura Bush’s portrait, painted by Russian-born artist Aleksander Titovets, shows her holding a book seated in a room in the White House residential quarters.
In her remarks at the unveiling, Mrs. Bush referred to the portrait of an older Dolly Madison and said of her own portrait that she decided to do it “sooner rather than later.”
The presidential exhibit is a testament to how much the culture has changed in America since the first portrait was painted of George Washington. President Andrew Jackson is wearing a full-length cape in his portrait, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt is smoking a cigarette.