Every Governor of the State of Rhode Island is given a budget to have a portrait painted which will hang in the State House upon his/her end of term. This past year, at the conclusion of his single term as Governor, Lincoln Chafee contracted with Julie Gearan, a New England artist, for his painting.
When the painting was unveiled recently there was a gasp from the audience. The painting was a remarkable piece of portraiture, but it didn’t reflect the man the State of Rhode Island had come to know as Governor Lincoln Chafee.
The Painting was dark, and it reflected a somber, youthful man with a look on his face that appeared to be of a man in emotional pain. Chafee is almost always smiling, and his demeanor is one that tells us that he is seldom floored by criticism or distress. He is capable of being positive and upbeat without suffering from the burdens of problems that would floor others. This portrait was nuanced by the artist to show the man who struggled with great opposition during his term, and who was obviously more injured by criticism than what was displayed on television, in the media, or in person.
The explanation given is that Chafee suffered more during his term as Governor than was obvious at the time. He was not as insensitive to criticism as he might have shown. His willingness to take on tough issues was not crippled by opposition, but the failure of a nearly-total Democratic legislature to take up his causes was painful. Once a Republican U.S. Senator, he ran as an Independent for Governor and defeated both Republican and Democratic opponents…and then became a Democrat half-way through his gubernatorial term. His move to the Democratic Party did not endear him to the Legislature as many thought it might.
The artist, Julie Gearan, picked upon on the seriousness of his experience, and nuanced her portraiture to express it. It is a powerful piece of art, and should probably send a message to the people of Rhode Island about the difficulty of doing governance in the testy atmosphere of the state. Rhode Island has struggled with its political atmosphere in which corruption, cronyism, and political sabotage are not infrequent.
Chafee, a man with ideological clarity which may be at odds with such behavior, was not afraid to tackle difficult issues. During his term he pushed for, and was successful in bringing about same-gender marriage in the State. On a less dramatic note, he upheld the historic position of the State, introduced by founder Roger Williams, that there would be no governmental privilege given to a specific religious community. He refused to call the tree placed in the Capital State House a “Christmas Tree” and referred to it as a “Holiday Tree.” While this was an issue of lesser significance to many than the same-gender cause, it struck a note with many in the State as being controversial, and…to be truthful…is probably more of a legacy to Chafee than anything. Rhode Island is a predominantly Roman Catholic state, with a conservative Bishop who rejected much of Chafee’s agenda…especially the Christmas Tree fiasco.
By nuancing the portrait’s expression and depiction of Chafee, Gearan has made a statement. One which may be problematic to many who preferred to characterize him as a clown. He is much more than that.
Photo Credit: Cade Tompkins Projects