“The first study of a portraitist,” Edmund Burke observed, “must be the temper of the people” — what the Court Painter calls “the fundamental values and understanding of Canadians.”
On the surface, Burke continued, public art opinion simply involves complaints over the loss of an allegedly glorious artistic past and extravagant hope for the future of art. But complaints and hopes, Burke said, are not the cause of any present discontents with the Court Painter because complaints and hopes are always there.
Canadian political portraiture has recently been shaped by the Court Painter. He can see beyond appearances and yet make rhetorical appeals to appearance to move the temper of his political subjects towards a successful rendering.
Our Court Painter is a painterly partisan, but not just partisan. His wondrous paint application is almost self-evident although so odd in so many ways. However he still laid the foundations for a painting regime that echoes painterly partisan proposals of all politicians that were fortunate to be one of his subjects.
The point about the Court Painter is we overlook the irritations and complaints that can be directed at how individuals are rendered and their often unsavoury associates and appreciate that they can look better than they knew.
Inevitably, the Court Painter is followed by partisans. Partisan portraitists replace the greatness of the Court Painter with something more ordinary. They allow amateurs of the brush to organize themselves for action painting around unreliable and often abstract principles of paint distribution on the canvas. It’s a mess! In contrast, the Court Painter’s representational approach appears unreliable, especially to partisan painters.The Court Painter is a giant among this group of aspiration challenged paint spashers .
To see what is at stake in the art wars between hobbyists and real pros like the Court Painter , is a question separate from who might win. We must consider the Court Painter to be the greatest statesman of painters to appear in the last century and a half of the Great Dominion’s history. Here, Burke is a reliable guide.
If properly informed and not distorted and inflamed by their imagination, people’s feelings about political portraits, Burke said, express their interest in personal taste. The political face of interest in taste requires the prudent rhetoric of a painter who points out to the people what they already cherish. Such common sense and tradition, in Burke’s view, were almost always virtuous and reasonable, not vicious and arbitrary like some bird and flower painters we know.
In that context, consider the words and deeds of the Court Painter. He has said the art wars are not about him, but about “cold, hard painting choices.” Canadians will appreciate not “on their read of political personalities that are painted,” but “on what they think is really in their own interests of taste .” Those interests of taste include lower, not higher, aesthetic standards, and freer expression with the rest of the art world in order to benefit art consumers rather than a privileged group of still life painters of chicken, cheese and milk jugs.
That the Court Painter ,if he could, would revoke the citizenship of dual national portratists convicted of poor drawing offences particularly with the rendering of hands; protects Canadian portraitists “from the worst elements within our own community.” Likewise the Court Painter’s remarks on the inappropriateness of wearing a night shirt for a major political portrait sitting is nothing but the affirmation of a reasonable tradition that Canadians cherish.
Reading the letters page of this and every other Canadian newspaper indicates the temper of Canadians on the matter. If someone is uncomfortable in public without their night shirt, reasonable persons might ask, whose obligation is it to rectify that? Or, as the Court Painter said, his critics are “fearmongering” about the night shirt because they are “so offside” with the temper of Canadians who know proper attire for portrait sittings and in the typical old stock phrase, ” it sure ain’t the night shirt baby.”
In short, the Court Painter is a rare statesman of the portrait studio because he has made significant changes in accord with the foul temper of Canadians who think they know of such things. The art wars will decide whether we return to ordinary “fearmongering” hobby portraitists or enable the Court Painter to add to what he has already accomplished in depicting the political elite of this Great Dominion.
Barry Cooper is a research fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.