Skip to content

Redone, hidden, burnt: seven famous subjects and the portraits they hated | Art and design

Vincent Namatjira’s portrait of Gina Rinehart has found no favour with the subject, with the mining tycoon asking the National Gallery of Australia to remove the painting from an exhibition. But Australia’s richest woman is not the first person to take a painting of their likeness to task.

Here we take a look at seven notable examples.

Winston Churchill by Graham Sutherland

Despite being one of the most highly regarded artists of his time, Graham Sutherland produced a portrait of Winston Churchill that was so detested it was secretly burnt at his wife’s instruction.

The painting was commissioned by the Houses of Parliament to mark the former prime minister’s 80th birthday in November 1954. In it, Churchill was seated and wore a dark suit, displaying his famous bulldog demeanour.

The wartime leader is said to have found his likeness “like a down-and-out who has been picked out of the gutter”. The painting was taken to his home, Chartwell in Kent, where it was hidden, before being destroyed in a bonfire.

Redone, hidden, burnt: seven famous subjects and the portraits they hated | Art and design
Photograph: Zuma Press, Inc/Alamy

Germaine Greer by Jeffrey Smart

Prim, seated and with her hands clasped around a handbag, a likeness of the author and feminist Germaine Greer was so unlike her, the sitter reportedly complained of the 1984 portrait painted by Jeffrey Smart.

The sitter and artist were friends but Greer reportedly refused to pose after seeing initial pencil studies of her face, forcing Smart to use a body double. While Greer may have hated the painting, it sold for $1,227,273 in 2022.

A portrait of Germaine Greer by Jeffrey Smart
Photograph: Jeffrey Smart

Bernard Breslauer by Lucian Freud 

A double chin was to blame for the destruction of the portrait of the millionaire antiquarian book dealer Bernard Breslauer by Lucian Freud. 

The art academic Catherine Lampert made the discovery in 2008 after visiting Breslauer’s New York apartment, where she reportedly learned that he had not been flattered by Freud’s depiction of his baldness and bulging chin.

Freud was told of the painting’s fate when he was 85, some 50 years after the portrait was completed. 

Had it survived, the portrait could have fetched a seven-figure sum at auction. 

Malcolm Fraser by Bryan Westwood

The prime minister’s first official portrait was instantly rejected when it was revealed in 1983, with Malcolm Fraser reportedly “loathing it at first sight”.

Bryan Westwood, who went on to twice win the Archibald prize, captured the prime minister standing with folded arms against a dark background.

Westwood’s agent, Robin Gibson, told the Canberra Times that the late former PM saw the painting as “too casual and domestic”. 

The painting was originally consigned to a National Gallery storage unit but was eventually moved to Old Parliament House. 

Lyndon B Johnson by Peter Hurd

The president is said to have called his likeness, standing and clutching a history book with the Capitol at dusk in the background, “the ugliest thing [he] ever saw”.

In turn, its painter, Peter Hurd, was not shy about calling LBJ’s behaviour “very damn rude”.

Portrait of Lyndon B Johnson
Photograph: Bettmann Archive

Theodore Roosevelt by Théobald Chartran

After the 1902 portrait was unveiled, Theodore Roosevelt felt the Frenchman had made him look more like “a mewing cat” than the powerful leader he preferred to imagine.

He reportedly hid the painting in a wardrobe before having it destroyed. A second – and more successful – official portrait was commissioned, this time by John Singer Sargent.

Ronald Reagan by Aaron Shikler

The 1989 official portrait of Ronald and Nancy Reagan was a second attempt after Aaron Shikler’s first version was rejected because it reportedly lacked a “twinkle in his eye”.

Two years later, the official portrait was replaced by a third, by Everett Raymond Kinstler.

An oil painting of Ronald Reagan by Aaron Shikler
Photograph: The Washington Post/Getty Images

Other notable unlikenesses

Gough Whitlam refused to sit for his prime ministerial portrait after his dismissal. His Archibald-winning likeness by Clifton Pugh was instead chosen as his official portrait. 

Lucian Freud’s painting of Queen Elizabeth was both admired and derided when it was unveiled in 2001. While some said the likeness was more like that of a corgi than the Queen, the sitter tactfully told Freud: “Very nice of you to do this. I’ve very much enjoyed watching you mix your colours.”