The National Portrait Gallery unveiled its latest acquisition, a commissioned portrait of Colin Powell, to the public on Monday. Artist Ronald Sherr was on hand to describe his larger-than-life work and the portraiture process, which included an amusing wardrobe malfunction and inspiration from LL Cool J.
Sherr said he had decided from the beginning to paint Powell in his uniform. Powell showed up to his first sitting wearing his military duds, which he had not worn in 17 years. Not only had the sleeves shrunk during the decades in his closet, but his shoes literally fell apart. At one point, Powell stood up and "the heels and soles just crushed down, like he'd stepped into chocolate," Sherr said. "Totally disintegrated and broke up."
Sherr drew some inspiration for the size of the painting from Kehinde Wiley's oversized, dramatic portrait of rapper LL Cool J, which had previously hung in the same spot in the gallery. "Looking at that painting of LL Cool J, I thought anyone visited the gallery and didn't know much about American history would have looked at that painting and thought he was the most important American who ever lived," he said. The idea of a small portrait for Powell was immediately discarded.
Working from photographs taken over two summers, he started with a formal, military pose for the general -- a "soldier-stiff kind of look."
Sherr quickly grew frustrated. Despite Powell's distinctive characteristics that Sherr says should be easy to capture, the painter struggled for only the second or third time in his career to get the likeness right.
"I felt, little by little, that it was not him," Sherr said. "It was not the man I remembered in the office, because there's a certain warmth to him. He's a very approachable man." Powell had also insisted from the beginning that he "wanted it to look like him," Sherr said, because several previous paintings and sculptures had failed to capture his likeness. "I've never had anyone say that to me before," Sherr said. He looked at previous works of Powell and agreed that most of them didn't quite get it right.
Two years of toiling in his studio finally produced the remarkable likeness hanging in the Portrait Gallery. Sherr adopted a more gentle pose for the general, with a raised-eye expression that he says Powell constantly adopts.
The final portrait pleased Powell, who he saw at the gallery Sunday night, and Sherr liked it too. The painter has captured numerous politicians in his career, including President George H.W. Bush, and has always tried "to keep my personal politics out of it."
"I try to give the person the benefit of the doubt and let history judge him, not me," he said. "My job is to create a visual record of a person." But in the case of Powell, Sherr said, "I have to say, General Powell is someone I've admired throughout the years ... He's a man who's crossed barriers and has a universal appeal."