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January 26. 2013 7:22PM

Richard Whitney has given five governors to history


John H. Sununu portrait. (Shawne Wickham/Union Leader)

A good portrait, Richard Whitney says, should be both realistic and idealized.

"When you look at my work, it should actually be more alive than a photograph," he said. "I'm trying to make it as beautiful as God made it - and then make it better."

The Stoddard artist has painted the official portraits of five governors and of Vesta Roy, the late Senate President who served as acting governor for one week after the death of Hugh Gallen in 1982.

Whitney said he tries to find out as much as he can about his subjects: their life stories, their accomplishments. "Because the portrait is a summation of their life."

He describes himself as "a landscape painter that does portraits to make a living."

So he was delighted with Judd Gregg's choice to be portrayed before the expanse of Mount Washington.

"He wanted something different, and I was all for it," he recalled. "You go to the State House and it's 300 brown paintings.

"So I thought it'd be nice to have something that has a contemporary feel to it that also shows him outdoors with the beautiful New Hampshire scenery."

Likewise, he said, it was important to Gov. John Sununu that Whitney paint a favorite photograph of the entire Sununu family into the background - a painstaking task that he said took him as long to paint as the entire rest of the portrait.

In the end, he said, both Gregg and Sununu were so pleased with their portraits that they immediately commissioned him to make copies for their private homes.

Once, Whitney said, when Sununu was showing former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney around the State House, he pointed out his official portrait.

Romney ended up commissioning Whitney for his own official portrait, and copied Sununu's idea by having the artist insert a photo of his wife, Ann, in the background.

Romney also asked Whitney to paint a small caduceus - the symbol of the medical profession - on the cover of a bill on his desk, to symbolize how proud he was of his health care reform efforts in Massachusetts.

That's why, Whitney said, he was surprised and disappointed to see Romney distance himself from that accomplishment when he ran for President.

Whitney also harbors a bit of professional disappointment that Romney didn't win, although he won't say publicly whether he voted for the former governor.

"It would have been fun to have been able to say, 'Hey, I painted the President of the United States,'" Whitney said.

"I feel like I just missed the Nobel Prize. As a portrait painter, that's kind of the coup de grace."

Still, painting six of the official portraits that hang in the New Hampshire State House has been "very rewarding," Whitney said.

"Because they live in history and I live in history," he said. "I'm the artist that captured them."


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