On My Mid-Career Decision to Accept a Portrait Commission from the President of the United States

Becky Tuch

I regret nothing.

Artists have always needed patrons. 

If I hadn’t accepted the commission, somebody else would have.

We couldn’t have known how bad things were going to get, the air strikes on civilians abroad for instance, which some say was deliberate even though there is only murky evidence of that fact, and anyway we didn’t know, or at least I did not know, even though it is true that we had seen it before, with other presidents, although those times were different, there had been necessary reasons, whereas this president, some say, did not have necessary reasons, though perhaps there are never good reasons to kill civilians, so many of them, as this president did, at weddings, at private ceremonies, during prayer, but anyway this is something we, or at least I, did not know then, or really was not thinking about, since those people, while they might be civilians at weddings and in private ceremonies and in prayer, are also, point in fact, very far away.

The money was good.

My face was on the cover of three different magazines.

Every president before him had an artist paint his portrait, even the president who started one of the forever wars, and the other president who continued the forever wars and also added more of them, as well as the president who started the illegal war, and the president before him who told all those lies that would create the reasons to begin the war, and all the presidents before them, who all started wars, every one of them had artists capture them, though the artists did not capture the wars, only these presidents who led young people into them, because that is what the artists were asked to do, so they did.

There is no such thing as bad publicity.

At the time of my commission, I did not know all the things this man would do, which means I did not know federal troops would be ordered into the cities, that water cannons would be fired, that there would be dogs, horses, rubber bullets, tear gas, that all of this that had for decades been taking place against civilians abroad would now take place, here, against civilians at home, which, it is true, was also done by other presidents before him, so it is possible that in fact I could have known, and yet the past, like other countries, is also point in fact very far away.

I did not know that you would be there, that the tear gas would burn your eyes, specifically.

The president and I, when he sat for me, barely spoke.

It was not the right time, while he sat, to ask him about the people in prison who were there because of the ways they spoke out against him and his administration, and how that was the sort of thing we did not think ever happened here, in the United States, but it did happen, was happening, and the fact that this was happening was something I did know then, because it had happened to you, and yet I did not ask him about you, or about the other men and women who had spoken up about the wars, the gas, the dogs, the rubber bullets, those men and women who were being harshly punished in ways most of us thought only happened in other countries, the types of other countries against whom we started wars, and yet we did not discuss this, the president and I, as he sat before me, face in repose, eyes glimmering with the trapped light of an overhead chandelier, fingernails cleanly polished, a smell in the air of oil paint, turpentine, and mustard, as the president was fond of roast beef sandwiches, had just eaten one for lunch.

People are complicated.

There was a new technique I was excited about trying, as I’d begun working with sponges, spoons, and household objects like egg cartons, and all of these created varying textures on the canvas, and that delighted me, as well as the very fact of repurposing these objects for art, decontextualizing them, stripping them of their function, which I suppose sounds rather violent, but isn’t.

I was the first woman who had ever been asked to paint a sitting president.

Something would begin with me: a revolution, a wave, or even just an open door.

It was not evident to me then, because I had not yet seen the photos, that because of certain decisions made by the president, in tandem with other like-minded leaders, beautiful cities would become rubble, museums would burn, artwork would perish, and, too, babies would starve, women’s bodies would be split in two, men would have their heads cut off with machetes while children looked on and screamed, and even if it was evident to me then, which it wasn’t, or wasn’t really, but even if it was only a little bit evident, my choice to paint the portrait would have been the same.

I was newly married and wanted to have a baby, and a commission like this would mean a kind of stability—financial, emotional, psychological—I had never known.

I finished the painting, and it hangs, now, alongside others, in the North Hall at the White House, and if you examine it closely you can see these new techniques that I was developing, the sponge dots like a starry sky, the ridged texture of the egg cartons, and I assure you there is difference between my work and the other painters before me in these small but meaningful innovations.

We do not choose our subject matter; our subject matter chooses us.

It was the middle of my career, the height of his, and to this day I cannot imagine a greater honor than being commissioned to paint the President of the United States for the White House.

Even you, still locked in your cell, must understand.

It is only one painting.

I am only one artist.

What should I have done? Really. What more could I have done?