The fine art of being a former NH governor

New Hampshire Sunday News
January 26. 2013 7:22PM
Portraits of former governors line the halls at the State House in Concord. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

CONCORD - From the hallways of the State House, the portraits of those who have governed New Hampshire through the centuries watch over the business of the state.

No public funds pay for these official gubernatorial portraits. Instead, the New Hampshire tradition is for friends and supporters to raise the funds to commission a portrait after a governor leaves office.

Now that John Lynch has returned to private life, it's time for him to start thinking about his official portrait. Lynch said he hasn't given it any thought yet, but plans to speak with other former governors to see what suggestions they may have.

Having private funds pay for the official portrait is "the right way to do it," Lynch said. "And I think it becomes more personal that way."

Knowing his image will hang in the State House for generations is "a real honor," Lynch said. "I think it's very special to think of being part of New Hampshire's history forever."

It's only in recent years that governors have requested personal touches be added to their portraits.

For Judd Gregg (who was governor from 1989 to 1993), that meant bringing portrait artist Richard Whitney of Stoddard to the White Mountains for inspiration.

Gregg said he "had no interest" in having an official portrait done. However, he said, "a number of people, especially Kathy, my wife, thought I should, so we went ahead and did it."

Still, he wanted no part of a traditional portrait. Instead, he wanted something that would highlight the state's natural beauty, he said.

"One of the things folks know I spent a lot of time on was protecting the environment of New Hampshire and the pristineness of the state."

So Gregg drove Whitney to the top of Mount Washington, the artist's first visit to the summit. "He was quite excited about it,'' Gregg recalled. "He actually enjoys painting landscapes even more than portraits."

But Whitney couldn't paint Mount Washington from the top, so Gregg suggested they do the portrait from the vantagepoint of Wildcat. It's where Gregg learned to ski and where his children did the same.

Gregg said he was pleased with the result when the painting was unveiled in 2000. He is seen on a fall day in casual attire, one leg propped on a rock, with the vista of Tuckerman's Ravine behind him.

Former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (1997-2003) chose a more traditional setting for her portrait and selected North Country painter Ralph S. "Stoney" Jacobs as the artist.

Wearing the red suit she wore for her first inauguration, Shaheen stands in the Executive Council chamber. One hand rests lightly on the conference table, the other on the arm of the governor's chair.

Shaheen, now a U.S. senator, said she wanted the portrait to honor the state's unique system of governance.

"We are the only state that has a working Executive Council, and one of the official functions of the governor is to meet with the council," she explained. "It felt to me that was one of the things that was special about the government of New Hampshire, the council chamber and standing at that table, so we agreed."

John H. Sununu (1983-89) says he loved the portrait Richard Whitney did of him. "And more importantly, my wife loved it," he said.

Sununu said he had looked at the work of "three or four" artists before he chose Whitney. "I was looking for a guy that would make me look taller and thinner," he quipped.

At Sununu's request, Whitney included a favorite photo of the governor's wife and children that he kept on his desk. He also asked the artist to put a computer on the desk behind him.

"I brought the computers into state government," said Sununu, who earned undergraduate and doctoral degrees at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "We modernized state government."

That computer on the desk, he said, "looks like an old, antique computer now, but you have to remember, that was ... 30 years ago."

When the artist asked how he wanted to be portrayed, Sununu recalled, "I said, 'I had a lot of fun being governor, and I wanted you to let people know I enjoyed it, if you can convey that.'

"I did not want to look stern and serious, even though it's a serious business."

So it's a smiling, youthful-appearing Sununu who leans comfortably back against a desk. "I really was so happy with it," Sununu said. "It really is good."

It's quite a different portrait of Gov. Stephen Merrill (1993-97) that hangs nearby.

The work of still-life painter James Aponovich of Hancock, it depicts a serious-looking Merrill leaning forward on a wooden desk, the gold dome of the State House rising behind him.

When the painting was unveiled, many were surprised that the gregarious Merrill was depicted so sternly.

In an email, Merrill acknowledged the 2003 portrait - and Gregg's before it - "took people by surprise and generated discussion and controversy as a result."

But he said his family recognized the man behind the desk. "When my young sons saw the portrait, they called it 'the Dad look!' which means they had seen it before and didn't want to see it again!" he wrote.

And "while I am told that behind my back I was called 'Governor Sunshine,'" Merrill added, "my portrait does not capture that public aspect of my personality. Rather, the artist focused on those difficult moments when a governor stands alone, behind the desk, and fiercely fights for a principle or piece of legislation."

In a blog posting, Aponovich described the Merrill painting as a "symbolic portrait."

He chose to represent not only the governor himself but "also deference to the law and people of New Hampshire," he wrote. So an open book signifies "the rule of law upon which the governor's authority is based," while two vertical columns represent the legislative and judicial branches. And the governor's eyes "are at the transition between the terrestrial and celestial."

"Artistically, this is risky stuff," Aponovich wrote.

Lynch is not the only former governor still awaiting a portrait. Craig Benson (2003-04) said in an email that he has had "a few discussions" with some people about a portrait but has been "too involved in other things to do any serious work on it."

"I know I have to do it sooner or later, but it has not been any sort of priority for me," he wrote.

Shaheen is cognizant that hers is the only portrait of an elected female governor in this historic building.

When she was governor, she recalled, she would ask fourth-graders who visited the State House each year on field trips whether they noticed anything about the portraits on the walls. "Usually, about the second or third thing they mentioned was the fact that there were no women."

Now, Shaheen said, "it's nice that they will see not just men who served but a woman who served - and I'm not the only one now."

With the inauguration of Gov. Maggie Hassan earlier this month, she said, "There will be two."

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