Environmental Governor, Caught in Oil
On Canvas, a Man of the Land if Not the People
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 10, 2003; Page C01

Both painter and painted tried to fix a smile on the canvas, but a smile just wasn't happening. Instead, for his official portrait as Maryland's outgoing governor, Parris Glendening has been painted straight-lipped, with a generic visionary look. His eyes, like those of so many politicians and petty squires over the last 300 years of portrait painting, are focused on the distance, past the slings and arrows and the sea of troubles, to the Shangri-La of legacy, where all leaders receive the love and admiration denied them, while in office, by all but their dog and their inner circle of sycophants.

Glendening's legacy, the painting says, is open space. He wants to be remembered as the environmental governor and so, through a miracle of virtual reality that long predates Photoshop or computer-generated imagery, the governor's lanky frame, painted over the course of at least a half-dozen sittings, has been superimposed on a verdant view of Maryland's Marshyhope Creek. The painter, John Howard Sanden, says he used a body double of the governor to pose at the creek, while the governor was painted in places more convenient. This kind of thing is a common little white lie of portrait painting.

The painting was unveiled yesterday in the governor's reception room at the State House in Annapolis. To emphasize the environmental legacy, the room was filled with the Democratic governor's allies in his eight-year struggle to preserve the Chesapeake Bay and control development of Maryland's open space. It was a bittersweet moment for the governor's supporters, given his stunningly low popularity and the failure of his lieutenant governor, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, in her campaign to succeed him. It was especially bittersweet for his environmental allies, who are celebrating some eleventh-hour triumphs in the land-preservation battle, while facing an uncertain reception from incoming governor Robert Ehrlich, a Republican.

"They better look around 'cause they're not going to see this room for a long time," said one guest.

Glendening's supporters may not see the governor's reception room for a while, but the reception room will be seeing a lot of Glendening, or at least his painted image. The painting will hang there along with those of recent governors for the foreseeable future. Surrounded by his predecessors, who are dressed more formally but seem more relaxed, Glendening is a hard man to read. He has been painted in a classic three-quarter pose but is dressed in the casual manner of a banker on vacation: brown chinos, blue blazer, white polo shirt open at the neck. One hand is stuffed in his pocket. (A politician with his hand obscured is instantly an enigmatic character: What's that hand doing?)

Most of his predecessors are memorialized with the classic blankness of political portraiture. Like tombstones, their paintings studiously avoid saying anything: a man, a blue suit, a calm gaze, perhaps a flag in the background. The exception, a portrait of William Preston Lane Jr., governor from 1947 to 1951, includes a blueprint in his hand and a picture of the Bay Bridge tacked to the wall. The exception suggests a rule: There are politicians, and then there are politicians who want to be remembered for the mark they made on the land.

"In political portraits there is this dichotomy that people are trying to resolve, which is that 'I'm the leader but I'm also one of the people,' " says Carolyn K. Carr, deputy director and chief curator of the National Portrait Gallery.

Glendening's portrait is about a different tension. The people, it seems, have disappointed him. He is leaving office on a wave of media vitriol reminiscent of President Clinton's tail-between-the-legs departure ("It's not that he's been a bad governor -- just a hypocritical one," wrote one commentator).

The land, however, never disappoints. The painter has included an egret in the distance; the long white form echoes the governor's white shirt, as does the bird's solitary stance. Appearing at the reception with his new wife -- a rare Jennifer Crawford sighting! -- and baby daughter, the governor remembered happy times spent on the Chesapeake and the Patuxent River. Even though, in the painting, the governor isn't actually standing on the shore of Marshyhope Creek, he seems to be thinking about what it feels like to stand on the shore of Marshyhope Creek. He's lost in a personal reverie of the land, which only reinforces the long-simmering sense that he is aloof, remote and uncharismatic. In fact, he's merely alone.

Glendening's pose is so perfectly formal yet neutral it reminds one of a man standing at the helm of his yacht. And though it's virtually impossible to avoid a whiff of the imperious when making a formal portrait, this mix of nature in the background and commanding solitude in the foreground sends a very odd message. Glendening's personal background is modest but his portrait belongs to a tradition of iconography that shows nature as a rich man's hobby, the same tradition of English aristocrats posing with their favorite hounds that one sees best in the works of Thomas Gainsborough. It's not a message that hardworking environmentalists want to put out, especially given the drubbing they take whenever the right wing uses Hollywood (America's aristocracy) to bash environmental activism.

If there's one painting in the State House that seems most akin to that of Glendening, it's a knockoff of a Van Dyck image of Charles I, the English sovereign who granted the Maryland Charter to Lord Baltimore in 1632. Glendening is not quite so regal as Charles, nor is he as nicely dressed. But both men have a hard-to-define quality of self-assurance and detachment, and both men seem inherently comfortable with their perceived role: as dispensers of land (for better and worse).

© 2003 The Washington Post Company