Brushing History onto Canvas

UNUM, Autumn 2004.

Michael Shane Neal was “thrilled” to learn that he had received the commission to paint Senator Arthur Vandenberg because it combined his “two greatest interests: history and interpreting people on canvas.” Neal’s feeling about the commission and his approach to developing the Vandenberg portrait are illustrative of the experience of an artist selected to create a work for the Senate’s art collection.

When circumstances permit, Neal, whose other works include a portrait of former Senator J. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana, tries to get to know those he paints. However, he also has proven adept at meeting the challenges inherent in creating a posthumous portrait. In the case of the Vandenberg portrait, Neal’s work began with studying research materials collected by museum Specialist Rich Doerner of the Senate Curator’s Office. This research package included biographical information, photographs, and magazine covers. Neal hung many of these images of Senator Vandenberg in his studio as he worked. He also reviewed Vandenberg’s writings, including a collection of his private papers and two books that the Senator wrote about Alexander Hamilton.

Armed with the impressions generated by his research, Neal began work by preparing a fairly detailed charcoal sketch. As he proceeded to paint in oil, he reached several artistic decisions. For example, he depicted the Senator from a frontal view rather than in profile. In this way, he hoped to convey Vandenberg’s direct, straightforward nature. Neal also sought to paint the Senator with “a look of determination that was serious but not intimidating.”

Some aspects of the creation process were affected by the manner in which the painting would be hung. For example, because the Vandenberg portrait would be installed in one of the Reception Room roundels approximately 15 feet from the floor, Neal approached the painting more like a mural than a conventional easel portrait that would be viewed at eye level. He sought to simplify the painting by using bigger, bolder shapes. Similarly, Neal’s color choices were influenced by the lighting in the Reception Room. He also was cognizant of the art already in the room, using background tones in the Vandenberg portrait that complemented colors used in the adjacent Constantino Brumidi paintings of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton.

At times Neal took an unconventional approach to ensuring that his work would show to best advantage. For example, he frequently took the portrait-in-progress to a high-ceilinged room above his studio. There, an assistant would climb a ladder and hold the painting at a height that allowed Neal to see his work from the same perspective as visitors to the Capitol. He also bought a suit of similar vintage and style to the one Vandenberg wears in the portrait. By trying on the suit and then viewing himself in a mirror, Neal was better able to capture the heft and drape of the fabric.

With his work now completed, Neal speaks of “the responsibility of the portrait painter,” stating that his objective is “to create an image that most people think feels like the person being portrayed.” With regard to the portrait of Senator Vandenberg, Neal considers it “a privilege to be included among so many incredible works of art collected by the Senate,” and expresses the hope “that Brumidi would be pleased with my addition to his design and his vision for the Senate Reception Room.”

by Brian McLaughlin