It is hard, looking at the young Alessandro de’ Medici in Jacopo da Pontormo’s painting of 1534–1535, not to empathize. Long-nosed and tender-eyed, he has a moody Adam Driver gravitas. Though he is looking at us, his hands emerge from his vast black cloak to fiddle with stylus and paper, where a faint female profile can be seen. Reputedly the illegitimate son of a Medici grandee and an African servant, Alessandro had been declared the first duke of the Florentine Republic at twenty-one. At twenty-six he was dead, murdered by a cousin.

The dukedom was the collaborative invention of Emperor Charles V and the Medici pope Clement VII, who may or may not have been Alessandro’s father. A painting of Clement by Sebastiano del Piombo hangs close to Alessandro’s in the Metropolitan Museum’s engrossing exhibition “The Medici: Portraits and Politics, 1512–1570.” Clement cuts an impressive figure in his papal robes, but his hooded eyes slide evasively to the side, and the expression on his lips seems close to a sneer. He looks like someone who would kick his dog, not out of rage, just to make a point.

But history argues otherwise. Another illegitimate son of another assassinated Medici, Clement had the ill luck to be named pope as the Reformation gathered force, and was unable to avert the sack of Rome. (As an outward sign of mourning for this catastrophe, he never shaved again, as later portraits show.) His chief failings seem to have been indecisiveness and a tendency to underestimate his enemies. Meanwhile, the seemingly soulful Alessandro was reported to be “an amoral libertine…so debauched that neither daughters of patricians nor nuns in convents were spared his depravity,” as Linda Wolk-Simon summarizes various sixteenth-century sources.

The detective in Josephine Tey’s novel The Daughter of Time so prided himself on being able to read a face, he was piqued to find that a picture he thought showed “someone too conscientious” was actually a portrait of the nephew-murdering Richard III. Doubling down on the side of the portrait, he sets about proving that the historic accounts of Richard’s villainy were fiction. (Unsurprisingly, the book is popular among art historians.) Whom to trust? History is written by the victors, but a portrait too is an argument as much as it is a document.

Standing in a museum, pondering people and city-states that no longer exist, the question may seem academic, but consider: in 2005 a group of psychologists at Princeton published a study that looked at how voters evaluated candidates on the basis of campaign photographs and how those evaluations correlated to election outcomes. The unsettling conclusion was that, while perceptions of likability and charisma had little to do with who got elected, estimations of a candidate’s competence formed after a one-second exposure to a head shot “suffice to predict the outcomes of actual elections” about 70 percent of the time.*

The Princeton study, led by Alexander Todorov, is cited in The Political Portrait: Leadership, Image and Power, one of several recent opportunities to consider the seductions and uses of portraiture. The celebrated portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald began a nationwide tour in Chicago and can now be seen in Brooklyn, and down the hall from the Medici for several weeks was the Met’s much lauded retrospective “Alice Neel: People Come First.”

Ubiquitous today, pictures of actual people (as opposed to gods and their proxies) are rare in human history. A decade ago, the Met’s show “The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini” (co-curated, like the present one, by Keith Christiansen) looked back at the fifteenth-century impulse to make a living person the focus of pictorial attention, and then to turn the sitter so she faced not the side of the picture but us. Leon Battista Alberti acclaimed painting’s “divine” ability to represent “the dead to the living many centuries later, so that they are recognized by spectators with pleasure and deep admiration”—not necessarily for their subjects, but “for the artist.” And there is the quandary: Standing at the Met, are we passing judgment on the characters of Alessandro and Clement, or the skills of Pontormo and Sebastiano?

The prompt for the Medici exhibition, Christiansen explains, was the museum’s acquisition of a portrait by Francesco Salviati, painted in Florence at roughly the same time as the Met’s flashy Young Man with a Book by Agnolo Bronzino, Pontormo’s brilliant protégé. It is the kind of situation art historians love: two artists in the same place at the same time, painting similar subjects in dramatically different ways. Bronzino’s handsome, haughty boy strikes a pose just shy of voguing: head cocked over his shoulder, one hand on hip, the other dropped to insert a finger into a closed volume. Salviati’s tone is intimate rather than opulent. His subject, a young doctor named Carlo Rimbotti, also has a book, which he clutches to his chest, his eyes wide and wary, like someone interrupted in the act of reading a private diary.


Both painters were native Florentines, but Salviati had traveled, learning robustness from the Romans and painterly nuance from the Venetians. Bronzino’s style was decisively, even eccentrically, Florentine—all that Mannerist stylishness and polish—and so immutable that scholars find it difficult to date his mature work. Vasari declared Salviati’s designs “superior to any other master in Florence,” and there is something admirable about his range and adaptability. (One century’s wavering is another’s experimentalism.) But Salviati’s gentle eclecticism serves in the exhibition as a foil to point out Bronzino’s adamantine brilliance.

They were rivals for the favors of Alessandro’s more successful successor, Duke Cosimo I, whose reign forms the scaffold of the show and whose ambitious deployment of “soft power” its thesis. Cosimo’s Florence punched far above its weight: the Accademia Fiorentina made the city a center of humanist arts and letters (Salviati and Bronzino were both members), and it was under Cosimo that Vasari wrote his Lives of the Artists, establishing Florence as the measure of artistic greatness for centuries to come.

Art was an important part of this program, but in the hierarchy of painting, portraiture ranked behind large multifigure narrative compositions—partly because portraits were easier to orchestrate (fewer moving parts), but also because they had little claim to the spiritual or heroic content of battle scenes or depositions from the cross. They were valuable tools of dynastic bookkeeping and assisted long-distance marriage proposals; they carried information, but not ideals. The solution was the allegorical portrait; likeness accompanied by props, costumes, gestures, and stage sets could contribute to the kind of play of meaning that flourished in poetry.

In Bronzino’s magisterial portrait of Cosimo’s duchess, Eleanora di Toledo, and her son Francesco, the faces are impassive but the hands, bright against the plummy, elaborate clothing, are theatrical. Touching his middle finger to his chest, Francesco points with his other hand to his mother, who rests her long fingers across her belly, as pregnant women do (see illustration above). The message is clear: son, mother, bun in the oven.

Eleanora had done much to elevate the Medici brand. She seems to have been intelligent, conscientious, and a supremely competent administrator; she also provided the requisite heir and many spares. (The eventual mother of eleven children, her motto was “joyful fertility with modesty.”) The little mimed story in the painting gathers power from the perceptible weightiness of the velvet, the meticulously individuated tiny pearls, the incipient itch where gold thread meets skin. The flesh, however, has the inelastic, waterproof look of stone, incorruptible and immortal. The temporal and specific lap against the eternal and symbolic. Disseminated through painted copies and prints, such portraits could advertise not only the appearance of rulers but their tastes and values, and by extension the ethos of the state they headed.

This arch naturalism, convincing to the eye yet riddled with clues and constructed meanings, was not easy to pull off. In two strange Salviati portraits, miniature figures are affixed around the sitters, one of whom seems to be getting kicked in the head by a fairy. The look is less Renaissance than Surrealism as imagined by a 1940s set designer. And while Bronzino’s portrait of the great admiral Andrea Doria as a naked Neptune, discreetly tugging a bit of sail over his manhood, is suitably epic, the naked Orpheus wearing Cosimo’s face is just awkward.

Inevitably, most of the allusions are lost on modern viewers. The catalog and wall labels shine light on references to Petrarch and Dante, historical events, and inside jokes, but it is hard to catch the counterpoint of obfuscation and revelation that must have delighted their original audience. What we are left with is spectacle.

And yet the tropes of allegorical portraiture have proved remarkably hardy. When, in 1952, Alice Neel painted the left-wing journalist Mike Gold, she sat him in three-quarter view, with literary credentials arranged in the foreground (The Masses) and resonant architectural detail at the back (a New York City fire escape). The subject is a twentieth-century Communist, but the structure would have felt familiar to a sixteenth-century aristocrat. What differs is the manner of rendering—the fine gradients and mimetic surfaces of the Renaissance have given way to solid slaps of paint and Neel’s telltale woozy line, which never met a knee or knuckle it didn’t like.

Born with the century in 1900, Neel was a middle-class white girl who embraced art, radical politics, New York City, and various unsuitable men, aiming to catch life “hot off the griddle.” She was the inspiration for the bohemian artist in Kenneth Fearing’s The Big Clock (played by Elsa Lanchester in the movie adaptation): alternately flighty and flinty, cadging cash from benefactors, living in an apartment overrun with children and unsold canvasses. Acclaim came late—she had her first museum retrospective at seventy-four—but substantively. In 1984, the year of her death, she was charming Johnny Carson on nationwide television.


“Alice Neel: People Come First” surveyed the whole of her career, from student work in a brushy and tender Robert Henri mode to the airy late portraits, which look like no one’s work but hers. People came first, but what this meant changed over time. In 1950 Gold quoted her, in a profile for the Daily Worker, arguing that human beings had been “marked down in value, despised, rejected and degraded” by the forces of capitalism and fascism. Picturing people was a moral imperative. The show includes some group scenes of urban misery in an expressionism-meets-folk-art style, but her instinct was always for the close-up. The argument for Neel as a “political artist” rests on the idea that picturing an individual can be a meaningful form of resistance to oppression. The Medici showed how portraiture equates with power, but they, like most of those whose faces line museum walls, bought their space on canvas. “People Come First” is full of pictures of the traditionally unpictured—Black and brown people, openly gay people, naked women who are pregnant, naked men not pretending to be gods. She painted the poor, “the neurotic, the mad and the miserable,” she said.

Disclaiming the word “portrait” (“such a frightful bourgeois taint”), she preferred to describe her work as “pictures of people,” as if collectivizing the subject would remove the stain. The progression of work on view at the Met suggests an artist caught between the modernist drive to think in the ideological aggregate (“I am against abstract and non-objective art because such art shows a hatred of human beings,” she told Gold) and the equally modernist drive to put the feelings of the artist front and center, until she recognized that her talent only found full expression in attending to the individual and particular.

Neel’s relative obscurity in the 1940s and 1950s has often been attributed to the supposed hegemony of abstraction, though art magazines from the era attest to the continued visibility of new figurative art. Being a woman and a single parent was probably a heftier impediment. The subsequent rise in her reputation may reflect the burgeoning of a more diverse gallery scene, but the paintings on view at the Met also suggest the work itself was changing, becoming lighter, more distinctive, and more descriptive.

The Spanish Family (1943) and Nancy and the Twins (1971) both depict mothers and children well known to the artist. The first pictures her older son’s aunt and cousins seated against a wrought-iron grille; the second, his wife and infant daughters recumbent on a daybed. But where the earlier picture presents types—dark hair, big eyes, tiny hands, sad expressions—the later one searches for the explicit. The babies are naked, the mother is nursing, and Neel has taken note of the faint web of blue veins on her breast.

Like many of Neel’s works, these are uncomfortable paintings. I am always surprised by the number of observers who find them full of empathy. That Neel had suffered in her life was undeniable: she lost two daughters—one to diphtheria and one to her in-laws—and was briefly institutionalized in her early thirties. She was drawn to the vulnerable and distressed, but like many artists of her generation, she also drew vulnerability and distress onto people and things. (The leafless trees and writhing rocks in a 1959 painting of Central Park are hardly palliative.) “I don’t do realism,” she said. In other words, the emotional tenor is set by the artist. “I don’t do it as a service,” she told Carson, meaning that she chose her own subjects, rarely worked on commission, and usually retained control of the painting (sometimes to her subjects’ dismay). This is one thing when we are looking at a nude John Perreault, who cut a deal to sit—or rather lie—for her in exchange for her agreement to loan a painting for a show he was curating. It is another when we are looking at her naked, estranged six-year-old daughter. Neel once described herself as a “collector of souls,” which, after all, is the devil’s business.

Bronzino’s dandies meet us eye to eye; strongmen like to be seen from below to appear more imposing. Neel’s vantage point is from above, looking down. Her sitters are perennially off-balance. The floor tilts upward, spilling them forward. Elbows and feet knock against the edges of the canvas. This makes for lively and engaging artworks, but does not always feel kind.

Linda Nochlin and Daisy, 1973 by Alice Neel

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Alice Neel: Linda Nochlin and Daisy, 1973

She was at her best when she was most observational. Paintings like Benny and Mary Ellen Andrews (1972) or Linda Nochlin and Daisy (1973) seem to catch the great and good of the New York art world on the fly—bored, antsy, curious, ambivalent. A film from 1978 shows Neel standing before a canvas, drawing with a paintbrush held like a pointer. Putting a good eight inches between her hand and her mark lightens the sense of firm control. Her line wraps itself around figures and furniture, torn between its responsibility to describe and its desire to play.

These are great paintings for the same reasons that the Bronzinos are great paintings—they have been put together by someone relentlessly interested in the surfaces of the world. Neel’s fascination with painting naked pregnant women may have been driven by the socially conscious desire to record female experience, but what she said was, “Plastically [pregnancy] is very exciting.”

The authors of the seventeen case studies in The Political Portrait are less concerned with painting than with photography, posters, and postcards. Bringing to bear expertise in domains from political science to graphic design and communication management, they offer chapters on the expected twentieth-century autocrats—Mao and Mussolini, the Ceausescus and the Kims—but also on images of Mitterrand and Macron, Churchill and Thatcher, American presidents praised and pilloried.

The question of exactly how portraits serve political power necessarily intersects with questions of style, but the strategizing of twentieth-century potentates seems to have been remarkably crude. Self-aggrandizing realism of a didactic, easy-to-read sort is the norm. (West Germany was something of an outlier, demonstrating its rejection of Nazism by embracing expressionist artists who had been declared “degenerate” under the Third Reich.) Franco insisted on being “photographed at a low angle to hide his belly,” left-wing politicians have preferred to appear casual and spontaneous, and “male leaders of prominent national movements never bare all, but do not disdain exhibiting pectoral muscles before the cameras.” Most of this comes as no surprise.

More uncommon is the inclusion of data on the effectiveness of these stratagems. (Despite the plenitude of publications and exhibitions extolling the power of political art from Goya to the Guerrilla Girls, evidence of actual efficacy is hard to come by.) In his discussion of American presidential portraiture, Steven Seidman cites studies of visual styling and psychological perception: one from 1973 found that television news viewers “rated a supposed political appointee shown at a low angle more favorably and powerful than when he was shown at a higher angle”; another, from 2014, indicated that high-contrast portraits were associated with strength and low-contrast ones with likability. Combine these findings with the one from Princeton about the electoral impact of instantaneous pictorial judgments, and you have both a campaign handbook and the stuff of nightmares.

The most intriguing, because the most mysterious, of the topics addressed is the personality cult of North Korea, “the most all-embracing ever known,” Mary Ginsberg writes. Initially focused on the nation’s founding leader, Kim Il Sung, the cult now extends to his son Kim Jong Il, and sometimes to his grandson Kim Jong Un, the current “Dear Leader.” Portraits of the elder Kims “hang on the wall in every home or apartment; every schoolroom, train and metro car; at the entrance to every factory, office building, gymnasium, [and] hospital”; they can be seen on the outsides of public buildings and on hilltops. All art is state-controlled in accordance with the Misullon (Treatise on Art) written by Kim Jong Il. Citizens are required to wear badges of the Kims on the left, near the heart. This ubiquity is accompanied by vigilance: stamps bearing the Kims’ faces are franked only at the margins, and “it is a major offense to fold a newspaper, if Kim Il Sung’s face goes across the page and would be dissected.” Foreigners, whose proper reverence presumably cannot be trusted, may not purchase badges or most other objects bearing pictures of the Kims. Photographs of Kim statues and paintings can only be taken from the front and must include the entire figure.

The statutory conflation of image and person—as if photographing bronze boots were the same as taking a machete to living legs—may seem atavistic, but it simply codifies a natural impulse. (The urge to topple a tyrant’s statue is a product of the same equation.) Ginsberg gamely distinguishes the elaborate forms of coercion imposed by the state from the genuine feelings of loyalty and belonging experienced by its citizens. “The uniquely Korean symbolic and ritual aspects of political and social life exert a strong pull on hearts and minds,” she observes. “It’s not just behavioral, it’s emotional.”

It is rare in this country for official portraits to inspire any strong emotion, so the public response to the portraits of the Obamas, when they were unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery in February 2018, caught everyone, including the museum, by surprise. People stood in line for hours to see paintings they had already seen in reproduction, depicting people whose faces they’d known for at least a decade. Amy Sherald’s painting of Michelle Obama had to be moved to another part of the museum because crowds were making it difficult to enter the building. A photograph of two-year-old Parker Curry gazing up at it went viral and prompted a best-selling children’s book.

Numerous factors contributed to this phenomenon: the Obamas were a singularly glamorous first couple and embodied a historic vindication of the nation’s promise. The unveiling came at a dark time in American history, and Barack Obama’s face still conjured the incitement to “hope” it carried in Shepard Fairey’s famous poster. The choice of artists was also newsworthy: Wiley and Sherald were both under fifty, African-American, and had art-world credibility.

If the Obama portraits sparked a rare display of public engagement with official portraiture, they also marked a rare moment of political relevance for contemporary art. (It’s not that the art world doesn’t try, but its audience is limited, and there is a lot of preaching to the choir.) The process of portrait commissions for outgoing presidents is handled by the National Portrait Gallery together with the White House. Curators prepare a short list, but the presidential couple make the final selection. While Obama was in office, the two had been remarkable for their interest in contemporary art, hanging works by major artists in both public and private spaces. It’s fair to guess that they came to the task of selection with a willingness to consider modes of portraiture that did not look like corporate boardroom art.

There are of course some great presidential portraits—Gilbert Stuart did well by those from Washington to James Monroe; John Singer Sargent’s Teddy Roosevelt is a perfect marriage of the master of the swagger portrait and the master of the bully pulpit—but for most of the past 150 years, cutting-edge art has been skeptical of political power, which in turn has been suspicious of distortion, abstraction, and messing with tradition generally. The result of a meeting of West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer and the Austrian expressionist Oskar Kokoschka may have ended up on Angela Merkel’s office wall, but the one between Winston Churchill and the British modernist Graham Sutherland ended, famously, in an incinerator.

Wiley and Sherald, however, were ideally situated for the task: each had developed a visual language predicated on respect for the people they painted, while treating the historical language of portraiture as an inheritance to be played with. Wiley had made his name with ambitious, hi-def renditions of European grand-manner painting (Napoleon on a rearing horse, ladies lounging on divans) recast with young Black men and women in contemporary clothes. His pictures’ eye-catching wit derives from the conjunction of street style and distinguished pomp. To create a similar disruption of expectation in a painting centered on one of the most respected people on the planet, he abjured the familiar symbols of presidential power (the Resolute desk, the flag, the seal) in favor of botany. Obama assumes a posture of attentive listening, arms folded across his knees, like a conscientious dad at a student-teacher conference, while leaves climb over his shoes.

The historical allusions of Sherald’s style go back further still, to the spare and rigorous forms of the fifteenth century, with their strange combination of serene monumentality and private person. Her portrait of Michelle Obama, with its articulated silhouette mounted against sky blue, manages to be iconic without being pompous. In a mode that the ghosts of the Accademia Fiorentina might appreciate, both pictures come with background stories about the symbols and citations employed—the echo of Gee’s Bend quilts in Michelle’s dress, the connection in Barack’s picture of particular blooms to Hawaii, Kenya, and Chicago. Fourth graders will be glad of those notes when writing school reports, but what will draw them and their parents to the pictures is something else.

Like those of Bronzino, these portraits are pointedly of their time, their creators chosen by their sitters for that very reason. “I believe in art as history,” Neel said. “The swirl of the era is what you’re in and what you paint.”