A picture is worth a thousand tweets. Donald Trump gained immortality of sorts on Friday when he made his debut at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. But he also ran into some “good trouble”.
Canny curators have placed the 45th president face-to-face with a painting of John Lewis, the late congressman and civil rights hero whose habit of making what he called “good trouble” included boycotting Trump’s inauguration.
“Keeping him honest!” remarked Eric Bargeron, 40, a book editor from Columbia, South Carolina, as he observed Lewis in an exhibition called The Struggle for Justice, staring across the room at Trump in the popular America’s Presidents show.
The photo of Trump was taken by New York–based Pari Dukovic for Time magazine on 17 June 2019, the day before the president officially announced he would seek re-election. It shows him sitting at the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office, wearing his trademark long red tie.
The picture is accompanied by a caption in neutral museum language, noting that Trump was elected “after tapping into populist American sentiment” and that he “put forth an ‘America First’ agenda”. It records his two impeachments and says the coronavirus pandemic “became a key issue during his re-election campaign”.
The caption adds: “Trump did not concede [defeat], and a mob of his supporters, who refused to accept the results, attacked the US Capitol complex on 6 January 2021, when Congress was working to certify [Joe] Biden’s win.”
The caption also appears in Spanish, a policy rarely seen at the Trump White House.
In another symbolic twist, the Trump picture has supplanted Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of Barack Obama, which is embarking on a year-long, five-city tour. Trump is now back-to-back with the famous Hope poster featuring Obama, by the artist Shepard Fairey.
The gallery, part of the Smithsonian Institution, reopened to timed pass holders on Friday after a six-month pandemic shutdown. It includes a special exhibition of portraits of first ladies, from Martha Washington to Melania Trump.
A trickle of visitors made their way to see Trump, whose likeness never quite made it to Mount Rushmore, join the pantheon of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt on the gallery walls.
Dan Freedman, a British documentary maker based in Louisville, Kentucky, was celebrating his 40th birthday but did not see Trump at first.
“I deliberately averted my eyes,” he said. “It’s cool they put Obama behind the bad guy.”
Freedman made a noble sacrifice for the Guardian, walking across the room to study the Trump portrait.
“He looks like an insecure man holding the desk to believe in himself,” he reported. “He doesn’t look very humble.”
Fellow Brit Fran McDonald, a professor at the University of Louisville, agreed: “It’s hard to look at. I started to take a picture of it and then decided I don’t want it on my phone. I’m so relieved we don’t have to look at him or listen to him any more. It was a relentless assault on the senses to have him in the 24-hour news cycle.”
The gallery draws visitors from all over America but judging by Friday’s crowd there will be few Trump worshippers eager to turn this into a “Make America Great Again” shrine ahead of a potential White House run in 2024.
Kevin Newman, 38, a police sergeant from Chicago, said he was “not a fan” of Trump.
“I was interested in how they would portray him because he was a controversial president,” he said. “They have made him look good. If they had made him look bad it would have inflamed the controversy. They didn’t make him look orange.”
The photo will make way for a painted portrait – the gallery says Trump’s team is considering artists. Newman added: “He obviously cares very much about his image so it be interesting to see who he picks.”
Trump could look to the 1968 painting of Richard Nixon for a template. The artist, Norman Rockwell, admitted that, finding Nixon’s appearance elusive, he decided to err on the side of flattery.
Meg Krilov and James Fogel were visiting from Trump’s birthplace, New York. Krilov, 65, a retired physician, said of his portrait: “He looks very unhappy. I don’t think he really wanted to be president. He wanted to be king.”
Her husband Fogel, 70, a retired judge, added: “He was treasonous. He tried to overthrow the government. And I guess he’s still trying.”
Did it feel strange to see a former reality TV host, credibly accused of paying off a porn star, enshrined in the same room as Lyndon Johnson and George HW Bush?
“It felt strange the entire time,” Fogel said. “It continues to feel strange.”