Nation, there’s a new portrait in town. As of December 19, 2014, Stephen Colbert makes his second appearance on canvas at the National Portrait Gallery. And the satiric TV pundit is back in fine form.
Much like his 2008 portrait, this work shows the shameless self-promoter reflected in a mirror. For those of you who missed seeing the earlier work, which was displayed between the men’s and women’s restrooms on the Gallery’s second floor, it is a three-deep image of which Colbert proudly proclaimed, “I don’t mean to brag, but as it contains three portraits, my portrait has more portraits than any other portrait in the National Portrait Gallery.”
The 2014 painting is an astonishing six-deep image. But these multiple Colberts are not created equal. Wearing different ties and bearing various props—from Emmy statuettes awarded for The Colbert Report to a copy of Colbert’s best-selling book American Again—they reflect various facets of the entertainer’s over-the-top TV persona.
The portrait parodies classical iconography often seen in masterworks depicting statesmen and nations. On the mantle is a Roman-looking coin (remnant of a powerful empire?), a copy of a Western-themed sculpture by one of America’s great artists, Frederic Remington (a symbol of America?), and an hourglass, a reference no doubt to the impending end of Colbert’s show on Comedy Central. After a stunningly successful nine-year run, Colbert recently announced that he will move to CBS to take David Letterman’s place on The Late Show. The last Colbert Report aired on December 18, 2014, and his Late Show debut will occur in September 2015.
The Latin inscription on Colbert’s faux fireplace in the 2014 picture reinforces the persona he created and will soon leave behind. The word “Videri” is part of the phrase “Videri quam esse,” a backwards version of North Carolina’s motto, “Esse quam videri,” which means “To be, rather than to seem to be.” Colbert’s spin translates roughly to “To seem to be, rather than to be.” What an appropriate slogan for the man who plays a fictionalized right-wing commentator swimming in self-importance and arrogance!
There is no denying Colbert’s impact on American culture. After its stint at the National Portrait Gallery, the 2008 portrait was accepted into the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, Ben and Jerry’s named an ice cream flavor for him (Stephen Colbert’s AmeriCone Dream), he made a brief bid for the presidency during the 2008 campaign, and he added the word “truthiness” to the lexicon.
Now, his likeness will again grace the space between the second-floor restrooms, where all can be in on the joke and pay tribute to his rapier wit. It will be on view until April 19, 2015.
—Amy Pastan, for the National Portrait Gallery