Statehouse portraits

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From the walls of the Statehouse, the faces of former governors stare down at legislators and visitors alike. There are some 70 portraits in all and they tell a version of history all their own.

Take one of the largest, the immense and overpowering portrait of Vermont’s first woman governor Madeleine M. Kunin. The artist has captured Kunin’s strength and intelligence, but somehow misses her wit and charm. She is depicted sitting in the governor’s office, her direct gaze directly confronting the viewer. It’s a portrait that says, “I am in charge,” loud and clear.

Statehouse Curator David Schutz says that is exactly the impression Governor Kunin wanted. The experience of sitting in the governor’s Statehouse office, surrounded by the stern frowning portraits of men who had held the office before her challenged Kunin. She decided to make a statement of her own. The result is the huge portrait of Vermont’s first woman governor that fills a wall on the Statehouse’s first floor.

Upstairs, the portraits of Governors Philip Hoff and Richard Snelling, old political rivals, now face one another across a hallway near the governor’s office. Hoff looks more relaxed than Snelling, but has a cigarette in one hand, a fact that distresses some contemporary Statehouse visitors. The Snelling portrait trims the former governor’s girth down somewhat, but accurately captures the electric blue of his eyes and the fierce intelligence behind them.

At the other end of the ornate House lobby is Governor Thomas Salmon’s portrait. His smile as he faces the viewer in this portrait, seems somehow mischievous, not a characteristic most politicians would choose to immortalize on Statehouse walls. Flanking the entrance to the governor’s office are modest portraits of two well-known and high-achieving Republicans, Governors Deane Davis and George Aiken. Across the hall is an even smaller portrait, a tiny engraving of the first Governor of Vermont, Thomas Chittenden.

But just downstairs is ex-Governor Howard Dean’s new portrait, and it is anything but small. Unlike every other gubernatorial portrait, Dean’s shows him in outdoor sports clothing and hiking boots, relaxing in the Vermont wilds, his trusty canoe nearby. Although the large painting has caused some merriment and jokes about “L.L. Dean” at the Statehouse, it is appropriate, given Dean’s personal love of the Vermont outdoors.

There does seem to be a trend towards larger portraits among recent Vermont governors, but Curator Schutz says he’s not concerned about the size of portraits – he simply wants them to be interesting, top-quality paintings – which all of the recent once surely are. However, that raises an interesting question: just how big a portrait could the current governor, Jim Douglas, or a future governor, get away with? Presumably the sky’s the limit.

And atop the Statehouse dome, standing tall against the blue Vermont winter sky, the figure of Ceres -Agriculture, if you will- may set the standard. She’s bold. She’s beautiful And she’s 14 feet tall!

Tom Slayton is editor of Vermont Life magazine.

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