Since the White House released the official portrait of Melania Trump on Monday, social media denizens have been debating the following: What’s the photo’s most unusual feature?
Is it that Trump’s arms are crossed?
Is it that she’s not really smiling, unlike former first ladies Michelle Obama, Laura Bush, and Hillary Clinton in their official portraits?
Is it that her cool, distant gaze seems to evoke her runway-model past more than her current role as the country’s first lady?
Or is it that the wife of a president who won big with working-class voters is wearing a diamond ring worth more than most Americans would make in 10 lifetimes?
This being the Trump administration, the photo’s release caused a media frenzy, and the picture, which shows the first lady in a black tuxedo-style jacket and glittery tie-type thing, became a platform for other issues plaguing the administration.
“Know what would be beautiful?” @Alt_FedEmployee tweeted, “A picture of first lady Melania Trump actually living in the WH and not wasting millions of taxpayer dollars.”
But back to the portrait itself.
Kate Andersen Brower, author of “First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies,” said she was most struck by Trump’s bling: a 25-carat diamond, according to Vogue, purchased on the occasion of the Trumps’ 10th wedding anniversary.
“You would think that she, or her handlers, although there aren’t that many, would look at the very prominent placement of this giant diamond ring, and you would think that would give them pause,” Brower said. “The president’s message is about getting jobs for working-class voters.”
Then again, she added, the first lady is not downplaying glamour.
“For his voter base,” Brower said, “it’s aspirational.”
Boston portrait photographer Ryuji Suzuki, of Beaupix Studio , immediately noticed the first lady’s crossed arms and distant gaze in the new portrait.
“There are different opinions about people crossing their arms in portraits,” he said. “If you do it right, you might add a powerful impression, but it often gives you distance. If you want to be friendly and approachable you probably wouldn’t pose like this.”
(By the way, Trump’s arms are not the first to make headlines in an official portrait. In 2009, Michelle Obama drew attention for wearing a sleeveless dress for her first official White House photo.)
Meanwhile, with her reserved expression, Trump manages to be a cipher in her own portrait.
“She is looking at the distance, which is very typical for fashion photography,” Suzuki said. In fashion “[y]ou are not necessarily there to make a direct connection with the audience, but you are there for creating the whole image.”
Not long ago, President Trump’s official White House portrait similarly made news. Not only is he not smiling in his photo, he looks so gruff he’s nearly frowning.
When Melania’s photo started making the rounds on Monday, few seemed to know where exactly the picture was taken, as the background shows only an arch of window panes.
At some point the White House issued a statement that simultaneously clarified the photo shoot location and glossed over where the first lady actually lives — primarily at Trump Tower in New York with 10-year-old son Barron. They are said to be moving into the White House once the school year is over.
“The White House is announcing the release of the first official portrait of First Lady Melania Trump,” the statement read, “taken in her new residence at the White House.”
The windows she’s posed in front of appear to be the same ones shown in the background of Nancy Reagan’s official portrait, but that’s the kind of detail only White House-ologists would notice.
Cara Finnegan, a professor of communication at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who’s writing a book about presidential photography, saw significance in the photo’s location-less nature.
“The fact that she’s contextless is interesting,” Finnegan said. “Both Laura Bush and Michelle Obama are [obviously] posed in the White House — literally both with white flowers,” she said, an element that showcased their caretaker roles.
“If you were to put Melania in the White House in front of a more overtly identifiable background,” she said, “then you would call up the sense that it’s disingenuous because she doesn’t live there.”
Meanwhile, even as the portrait elicited strong opinions, Finnegan’s first take on the portrait was fairly positive.
“The first thing I thought when I saw it,” she said, “was they did a way better job with her portrait than with his.”