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The story behind Jerry Brown's gubernatorial portrait

by Kevin Ferguson and John Rabe | Off-Ramp®

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"It catches a lot of the expressions we all remember," said California Assemblyman Lou Papian on Don Bachardy's 1984 portrait of California Governor Jerry Brown. Robert Couse-Baker/Flickr Creative Commons

Thirty years ago, California Gov. Jerry Brown unveiled his official gubernatorial portrait. The work, created by Santa Monica portrait artist Don Bachardy, was a far cry from the traditional portraits. Instead of a photorealistic snapshot of a heroic politician, it showed the governor surrounded by gray, his angular face and falcon-like glare staring directly at the viewer.

It didn't go over well at the California State Capitol. New York Magazine wrote that one state legislator said it looked like Bachardy painted it with "spilled ketchup and soy sauce." The portrait was tucked away on the Capitol's third floor, far from the other gubernatorial portraits. 

But what was painting the famous portrait like? Don Bachardy, who has a new book of portraiture out now called "Hollywood," explained the process.

Bachardy estimates he did at least 15 different portraits while on the search for the perfect one. The governor attended five sittings in all, but it wasn't easy getting through them.

"He couldn't understand why I'd want him for five sittings," Bachardy told Off-Ramp host John Rabe. "He found sitting still very difficult. He felt vulnerable. He's not used to being passive, or he felt it was a case of my dominating him."

Although the portrait got a chilly reception at first, many grew to embrace the work. When Brown was re-elected governor in 2010, he said the unfinished nature of the portrait reflects his "unfinished work while in office."

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