The official portraits of French officials are an integral part of a long tradition. In Dans Le Portrait du roi (1981), Louis Marin analyzes the practices of representation of power under Louis XIV, whose celebrated portrait by Rigaud provides a model to be imitated by many rulers.
The first President of the Republic to adopt the photographic portrait is Adolphe Thiers in 1871; with full dress, a neutral background, a classical pose, the formal looking president rests his hand on a stack of books. His successor, René Coty, was the only president during the Fourth Republic to smile.
With the portrait of Charles de Gaulle, color and modernity arrived, but he revived the portraiture’s traditionalist roots too. His choice of the library inside the Elysees Palace also started a tradition followed by most presidents of the Fifth Republic. But not Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. VGE’s 1974 photo, taken by Jacques-Henri Lartigue, is now in the MoMA in New York. It was the first time that the portrait of French head of state is taken by a renowned artist. When d’Estaing asked Lartigue, Lartigue replied that he was not an official photographer; d’Estaing stated that was why he wanted Lartigue to take his portrait.
Giscard definitely set the bar high; even France’s only socialist president Francois Mitterrand, who campaigned on “quiet strength”, couldn’t resist engaging a high-profile photographer. In his case, it was the celebrated Gisele Freund, the intellectual portraitist of many great writers of the 1930s. Socialist and minimalist in appearance, the photo did away with the most conspicuous trappings of the exalted office. Mitterrand poses in an intellectual manner as if he too belonged to those artisans of the 30s, a book of Montaigne’s Essays lay open on his lap.
Jacques Chirac took the photo session outside. Relaxed looking president definitely looked more distant than his predecessors in this photo by Bettina Rheims. The current president Nicholas Sarkozy chose relatively unknown photographer Philippe Warrin (better known for his paparazzi work) but he brought back the grandeur of the office unseen since the days of Charles de Gaulle. The photo was criticized for imitating the American official portrait styles; it is the first official portrait of a French president with a European Union flag; the stars of the European flag with the stripes of the French flag created a faux American flag, many Frenchmen complained.