Duke unveiled President Richard Brodhead’s portrait for the Gothic Reading Room Nov. 2. The painting was done by Bob Anderson, a classmate of Brodhead’s at Yale, who has also painted President George W. Bush on three occasions. Anderson has been painting privately commissioned portrait since 1973, and previously painted Brodhead when he stepped down as dean of Yale College. The Chronicle spoke with Bob Anderson about his career as an artist and his experiences painting the presidents. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Chronicle: What does the process of painting someone’s portrait look like?
Bob Anderson: In the case of Duke, I knew President Brodhead before and I had actually painted him once before for Yale, but generally that wouldn’t be the case. I like to spend a little time getting acquainted with the person I’m going to paint and establish some kind of personal relationship with them, which puts everybody at ease. After a conversation, I see how people are when they’re relaxed, not thinking about whether they’re sitting up straight or being aware of their body language. And the painting is to portray that, as much the body language as getting a good focus of the face and the proportions of the body and that kind of thing.
And then we set up a second session to take photographs and any sketches that I might want to make for the final painting. I would put together some kind of composite sketch based on the best information I could get out of the photographs and sketches. I’ll put together a digital sketch, and I can actually make it look somewhat painted through software. If there are any little tweaks or pieces of background information that they’d want to have in the painting, we talk about those things. I’ll discuss different poses with the client, and we’d come up with sort of the guidelines for building the portrait on canvas.
Once I have all the nuts and bolts as tight as I can, I’ll get to work on the final painting. And then there’s the moment of truth, the finish. Then they’ll schedule an unveiling of some sort, or just a delivery. It makes me a little uneasy when I see they’ve sent out invitations for the unveiling, but I’ve got a long way to go on the painting. And I say alright, I hope I can hit the finish line in time. But so far so good. I’ve been at it for 45 years or so, and sometimes I get extensions by agreement, but if there’s a hard and fast deadline, I’ve always been able to meet it. So knock on wood I can keep doing that.
TC: How do you choose the backgrounds of the paintings? In President Brodhead’s painting, you can see the Chapel and a photograph of the train tracks that brought stone to build West Campus to Duke. Is that your choice or his choice?
BA: Usually I like to ask people what they’d like to have in the background. I had to take some liberties with the angle of view of the architecture of the Duke Chapel to get it to sit in the window, where it is in the painting. The Chapel was important, so we knew we needed to have it in there but when we actually took the photographs from his office, the Chapel was kind of off to the side and the branches of the tree were in the way. So we took them out and cleaned it up, and I think we moved the Chapel over a bit and used some additional reference materials to get that as accurate as I could, so it fits nicely into the composition.
People will have requests. If it’s a large enough painting and there’s room we’ll do them, or have a particular little corner of a painting that’s important to them in the background, or some photograph of a spouse or something on a desk in the background. I don’t mind doing some of that, but we don’t want it getting too busy. It subtracts from the power of the main event, which is of course the subject of the painting.
TC: What was it like painting President Brodhead?
BA: He is so at ease. He’s accustomed to being photographed in various settings in his role as president. I looked for things about him that were characteristic, and I think he was sitting in a very comfortable position the way he would, in a way that was conversational. It’s best if you feel engaged with the person in the painting, as if that person were in conversation with you, looking you directly in the eye and you feel personally drawn to that person, as you would be if you were in their company personally. For me, that did work in his painting and I think he felt that too, so that was nice.
He’s such a generous person and enthusiastic and I think that helps feed me as I was going along in the process and felt encouraged along the way. From what others have said about him, that’s very much his way. As a leader, you get the best out of people working with you and for you with that kind of manner, so that’s a testament to him and I think he brought out the best in what I could do.
TC: You also painted President George W. Bush for the National Gallery in 2008. How was painting him different?
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BA: I knew that I needed to pay close attention to this one because it was going to gain a lot of visibility. There were the politics of it all too, and after the painting was delivered, people said don’t read the press about it. The criticism is not often going to be about the painting, because people aren’t going to differentiate between the painting and the person. And for as many people as admired President Bush, there was a lot of criticism over some of the decisions he made.
President Bush was a classmate of President Brodhead’s and mine at Yale, so we knew him then. I try with every painting that I’ve done of any kind of political figure to just leave the politics out. I treated my portrait of President Bush as someone I had known for a long time and as a friend. Whatever my political persuasion is was irrelevant, and really whatever his was was irrelevant too. It was more about his character and the way he held himself. It’s quite informal, and I like that, because it’s personal and it makes him more accessible to a viewer.
I felt that way about President Brodhead too, that he was willing to be pretty informal even though he was wearing a suit. He still had enough informality about him that it would be familiar to those with whom he was familiar and comfortable. I had also painted [Bush] once before for the Yale Club in New York City and I’ve painted him once since then. It’s kind of interesting too now that he’s a painter, so we had a little common ground during the third one. It was for the secret society at Yale. It was so secret that I couldn’t even attend the unveiling because I wasn’t a member.