Don Bachardy tells the story behind his Capitol portrait of Jerry Brown
Don Bachardy stood beside his famous portrait of Gov. Jerry Brown and scanned the Capitol wall that also held more realistic likenesses of Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Described as a modernistic portrayal of the current and former governor, Bachardy’s work is a sharp break from the traditional style used for Brown’s predecessors and successors.
“None of the other painters of these pictures could tell you a story about how they were done because there’s nothing very interesting about copying a photograph,” Bachardy, slender in a navy blue suit, said bluntly during a visit to Sacramento on Thursday, his first since he came to look at the pictures of past governors while working on Brown. “If that’s your inspiration, you don’t have any connection, really, with the subject.”
Brown, the subject of Bachardy’s inspiration more than three decades ago in the painting commemorating his first tenure as governor, from 1975 to 1983, was returning from a trip to China and unable to attend the artist’s reunion with his work.
The more abstract painting has long divided its viewers. When the $13,000 work was commissioned, Capitol insiders joked about hanging it from the ceiling, reasoning that an off-the-wall governor deserved an off-the-wall location. Ex-Assemblyman Stan Statham suggested it would be better off “reduced to wallet size.” But the singer Linda Ronstadt, an old companion of Brown, considered it “the closest thing to art they have hanging up there.”
Bachardy said even he wasn’t so sure about his approach, the product of five sittings by Brown, who arrived at least twice after running along San Vicente Boulevard in Santa Monica and had to wash in the artist’s studio.
“I was taking a chance, and climbing out on a branch, and not certain whether it would break or not,” Bachardy said.
The artist, now 84, is open to painting Brown again, but cannot imagine how he would go about it because he works off the presence of his sitter, and “how we interact, personally.”
“I’ll be very surprised if Jerry Brown agrees to another sitting, because he found it very difficult,” he said. “And he couldn’t help wondering why it took me so long.”
While there are several drawings and paintings from Brown’s first four sittings, each nearing four hours in length, the portrait is the product of the fifth and final sitting.
“Everything was riding on that,” Bachardy recalled, “which made it all the more of a test, an excruciating test. Lots of pressure, and maybe that’s what helped me succeed.
“Forty years later, I am not the same person anymore, and neither is he,” he continued. “That combination, if we do get together again, will be something spontaneous.”