Museum honors McCain with portrait that captures his ‘timeless values’

The National Portrait Gallery frequent features recently deceased prominent people on its “In Memoriam” wall. The never-before-printed portrait of Arizona Sen. John McCain was up less than 48 hours after his death last week. (Photo by Vandana Ravikumar/Cronkite News)

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery put a guest book next to its portrait of the late Arizona Sen. John McCain. Several visitors have left messages for the McCain family or, in some cases, to the senator himself. (Photo by Vandana Ravikumar/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – Images of Sen. John McCain have been hard to avoid for the past week – McCain the POW, the presidential candidate, the maverick politician.

But until Monday, few had seen the photo of McCain now displayed at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.

The never-before-published image is deceptively simple at first – McCain appears small compared to the grandeur of the Senate columns surrounding him. But that might actually be one of its strengths, say officials at the museum, which put the picture on its “In Memoriam” wall in honor of McCain.

“When we began our search for an image of John McCain, this was the picture that surfaced, that we really felt was a wonderful way to represent the senator,” said Ann Shumard, senior curator of photographs at the gallery.

She said the photo was taken in 2005 by photographer Steve Pyke for The New Yorker magazine, which was working on a profile of McCain at the time. The profile appeared but the particular photograph now on display was not published.

John S. McCain III by Steve Pyke, the 2005 photo selected by the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery for its exhibit honoring the late Arizona senator. (Photo by Steve Pyke/Reprinted with permission of National Portrait Gallery)

But it stood out to the gallery’s curatorial team 13 years later when they were looking for a way to remember McCain.

“One of the things that we really liked about this photo is that it situates John McCain in his role as a senator by picturing him along the exterior colonnade,” Shumard said of the photo shot outside the Russell Senate Office Building.

“The columns really seem to reference, in a way, the timeless values that John McCain embodied during his life and his career – his commitment to public service and personal integrity,” she said.

McCain died on the afternoon of Aug. 25 – early evening Washington time – and gallery staff rushed to have the portrait in place when the doors opened on Monday, Aug. 27, less than 48 hours later.

The photo hangs on the museum’s In Memoriam wall on the first floor, making it one of the first things guests see upon entering. Still, Shumard said many visitors have come just to see McCain?s portrait. Some have left messages for the McCain family in a small journal the museum placed next to the frame.

“Though you’ve gone and though we had our different views,” one note reads, “I thank you for your service, for your truth and integrity.”

“I always admired your independence of thought and willingness to fight for what?s honorable and right,” another entry says. “Godspeed.”

McCain is not the only prominent American to be honored on the National Portrait Gallery’s memorial wall. Shumard said that other recent portraits have included Aretha Franklin, Barbara Bush, Nancy Reagan and Prince.

“There have been a number of individuals whose portraits have spent time on this wall as we pay tribute to them at the time of their passing,” she said.

McCain’s portrait will remain on the In Memoriam wall until Sept. 9.

-Cronkite News video by Imani Stephens