Portraits of California Governors' Wives and Lovers Spark Controversy

A collection of paintings of powerful men hangs on the walls of the California State Capitol—the portraits of California’s governors since 1879. 

In June, at a bar directly across the street, an artist installed paintings of the women left out of the official governor’s portraits: the wives, lovers, and mistresses of California governors. 

Artist Maren Conrad’s was slated to debut her “Politically Vulnerable” series of portraits of women like Maria Shriver, Linda Ronstadt, Nancy Reagan, Piper Laurie and Virginia Knight at Sacramento’s Vanguard bar—which is right next to the capitol building—in late June. But bar owners nixed the art after a local resident complained the portraits were demeaning to the very women they were meant to highlight.

Each of the ten women featured in the collection had some form of romantic relationship with a California governor. Also, despite different kinds of political expectations—to remain a “good wife” in the case of the first ladies and to remain silent in the case of the mistresses—each woman made a distinct name for herself in her community, left her own mark and legacy, and spoke out about her private life. As Conrad’s artist statement says: 

“Behind the scenes of politics, where “great men” rise to power by carefully protecting themselves from the vulnerabilities of their personal identities and histories, these ten women—wives, girlfriends, and mistresses of California governors—reveal their personal power by revealing their stories. Taken together, they represent the strength of baring one’s identity, telling one’s history, and facing one’s vulnerabilities, a strength often denied in the image-crafted world of politics and debased in the tabloid world of entertainment that finds its home in California. Though they are united by their shared connection to powerful politicians in the state, these women are celebrated for possessing their own personal puissance.”

To capture the dual sense of vulnerability and power existing all at once in these women, Conrad uses bronze and silver tones to paint the women. Each woman appears strong and poised and stares intently either at the viewer or off into the distance.

Linda Ronstadt, for example, is featured in the series because she was a a former love interest of Governor Jerry Brown, but has had her own a successful career as a musician, winning twelve Grammy Awards and an Emmy. Successful actress Piper Laurie is in the collection—she wrote about her unpleasant experience losing her virginity to Ronald Reagan. Virginia Knight is in the “Politically Vulnerable” not just because she was the first lady of California in the fifties, but because of her accomplishments as both a poet and advocate for veterans.

Below is the portrait of Brigitte Nielsen, a Danish actress who had an affair with Arnold Schwarzenegger on the set of Red Sonja

Portrait of Brigitte Nielsen

Maria Shriver, Schwarzenegger’s ex-wife, a Peabody and Emmy Award-winning journalist and women’s rights activist, was also part of the series. 

Portrait of Maria Shriver

Nancy Reagan, who was included in the series because “of her ability to stand out as an activist in her own right,” is painted below: 

Portrait of Nancy Reagan

After a news story about the planned art opening made headlines in Sacramento, resident Donne Brownsey contacted the bar about her concern that it become associated with “a theme like mistresses, lovers and muses of California governors.” Brownsey told reporters that she felt the collection used gender stereotypes to the detriment of the women depicted. Highlighting the women’s relationship to men as their common denominator, according to Brownsey, would be interpreted as focusing on the “incidental power of women and politics,” a trope that would reinforce “old thinking” about the role of women in politics.

Conrad has always considered her art as “highly feminist.” “These women were all involved in politics, and they showed power through vulnerability,” Conrad told the Sacramento Press.

The bar decided to pull “Politically Vulnerable” from its walls, seeking to minimize any offense it might cause. Both Brownsey and Conrad make good points here, but the bar owner definitely missed the intention of the series, stating, “We’re not trying to make a political statement – we just want beautiful artwork and by no means want it to be offensive to anyone.”

Not only did the controversy prove Conrad’s point, in a way, it led to the purchase of the whole collection by a Sacramento attorney.

by Nina Liss-Schultz
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9 Comments Have Been Posted

Thank you for covering!

Thanks so much for bringing this story to the national stage. I'm a resident of Sacramento and big supporter of Maren Conrad's. The art is lovely/poignant, and I'm glad to see such a talented local get recognized for her efforts. Thanks!

I'm a Sacramento resident

I'm a Sacramento resident too, and am disappointed I didn't get a chance to see this series. It looks like it was lovely.

i don't really understand why

i don't really understand why these women must be nude? are the governors shown without clothing as well? are we only vulnerable with our clothes off? i don't get it.

What gives you the impression

What gives you the impression that they're nude? From what I can tell, they are all portraits from the shoulders up.

well, i see naked shoulders.

well, i see naked shoulders. are the politicians also shown like that? bare chested? i guess not.

I guess I'm not really sure

I guess I'm not really sure why it matters? They're lovely portraits, and all you can focus on the fact that they have bare shoulders. They're not meant to be compared with the portraits in the Capitol.

the article states the

the article states the connection so it makes sense to me to compare, especially when the women are shown differenetly from the men. i find the idea great, but the nudity questionable in feminist context.

But why is it an issue? It's

But why is it an issue? It's not overt nudity. For all you know they could be wearing strapless gowns. Frankly, I think "clothing" them would distract the portraits and clutter them. I think it's merely an artistic choice. Not everything means something.

sorry but yes, everything

sorry but yes, everything means something. if intentionally ot not. this tells me that in our society we are so used to see women naked that its almost never questioned anymore. not even here, which disappoints me.
and clothing would be distracting? sure...

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