Trump’s Court Artist

Jon McNaughton once painted landscapes and religious scenes. Now he’s focused on reverently depicting the Trump era for future generations.

Jon McNaughton shows off a portrait of President Reagan
Zach D Roberts / NurPhoto / Getty

Even if you haven’t heard of the artist Jon McNaughton, you’ve seen his work in your news and social-media feeds. He’s gone viral with paintings of President Donald Trump clutching the American flag (Respect the Flag), Trump playing football (All-American Trump), and Trump at the easel unveiling his masterpiece (The Masterpiece). McNaughton is the closest thing the Trump administration has to a court artist, although liberals see him as more of a court jester. Art critics call him a propagandist and purveyor of populist schlock. He “panders and preaches to the converted” with work that is “drop-dead obvious in message,” says Jerry Saltz, the senior art critic for New York magazine. Others see McNaughton as a straight-up comedian. “The most consistently funny artist working today,” tweeted the actor Michael McKean, deadpanning.

The artist insists he’s not joking, however. Making work for posterity is McNaughton’s stated goal; he often says he wants nothing more than for his art to endure so that it might tell future viewers “what it was like to be alive at this time in our country’s history.” Americans should take him at his word. People considered Trump a joke, too, and look where he ended up.

McNaughton is based in Provo, Utah. He studied art at Brigham Young University, but didn’t immediately pursue an art career, working a desk job in finance and saving up to one day paint full-time. Before the political paintings, he made landscapes and religious scenes drawn from the life of Christ and Mormon Church history. McNaughton acknowledges in The Art of Jon McNaughton: Images of an American Artist (a PDF he provides free of charge to visitors to his website) that he finds himself “constantly checking news stories and posting things on Facebook.” During the Obama presidency, this habit began to inform what he puts down in paint. His most famous work from that period is certainly The Forgotten Man (2010), which shows Obama with his foot on the Constitution and his back turned on a white guy down on his luck—the artist’s figure for the American everyman. It isn’t subtle, but not everyone wants subtle: It now belongs to Sean Hannity, the Fox News host.

With a body of work that encompasses religious and political themes, McNaughton presents himself as an heir to the great masters of the past who painted for both popes and emperors. The promotional photograph of the artist in his studio, which opens The Art of Jon McNaughton, calls on traditional tropes of the meditative, divinely inspired artist. There McNaughton sits, in shadow, before an enormous painting that glows from the light pouring in from the window. He is surrounded by a clutter of paintbrushes, rags, bottles of paint, and other tools of the fine-art trade, all of which mark this as an academic, labor-intensive, and considered artistic practice. If nothing else, he knows what triggers people to think, This is serious. McNaughton, this staged photo suggests, is the latest iteration of a noble tradition that goes back centuries. And in a sense that’s true.

For European academies of art, widespread by the 17th century, the great work of art was history painting. These were visual lessons of courage in the face of death, stories of sacrifice, heroism, benevolence, and all the other ancient virtues people were used to encountering in classical scenes and religious imagery. Eighteenth-century history painters transposed this rhetoric onto local scenes of the more recent past, giving current events grandiloquent treatment. In The Death of General Wolfe (1770), the American Benjamin West, a major player in the London art world, drew on Lamentation of Christ scenes for his vision of the dying Wolfe, the British general who helped turn the tide of the Seven Years’ War in the Battle of Quebec (1759). But West also bucked convention by clothing his figures in the style of the day instead of the classical attire that painters had always used. Sir Joshua Reynolds, the first president of the British Royal Academy, said it was madness. Then King George III made West the historical painter to the court. The artist had set a trend, changed the course of history painting, and earned himself a title.

McNaughton similarly courts controversy, though in a style particular to our time. While West hoped his painting might help repair the fraying bond between Britain and its colonies, McNaughton appears to think that sowing discord is a simpler and more straightforward artistic maneuver. You can’t just paint old-fashioned narrative scenes and expect to gain any traction, after all, at least not online. You have to inject some shock value, some edge, to tell visual stories that will temporarily halt scrolling thumbs passing over endless digital content.

McNaughton made such an impression with The Resistance (2019), an update of Francisco José de Goya’s The Third of May, 1808 (1814). His twist on the original was to put a brown-skinned MAGA-hat wearer in the position of the Spanish martyr captured by a Napoleonic firing squad. In the artist’s restaging, the squad is a band of masked, hoodied, and stick-wielding Antifa aggressors. Adding insult to injury, one of the activists sets fire to the American flag, an incendiary replacement for the lantern that was Goya’s central light source.

The Resistance, like so much of McNaughton’s art, is shaped for digital consumption. It’s not only that his main mode of distribution is social media; this is not at all unusual for artists seeking an audience today. It’s rather that the Twitter-Facebook ethos shapes the visual logic and tone of McNaughton’s paintings: He leads with partisanship, signals sophistication, and lets the details slide.

In The Resistance, you’re not supposed to ponder how today’s progressives align with the Napoleonic forces invading Madrid in 1808, or to worry about the context of the Spanish government’s 1814 commission of the painting after Napoleon’s fall. Don’t scratch your head over where McNaughton’s brown-skinned MAGA martyr fits in Trump’s anti-immigrant worldview, and definitely don’t go down the rabbit hole of Spanish colonialism’s legacies in the Americas. The name Goya shouldn’t necessarily ring a bell either. Instead, allow McNaughton’s painting to register as “historically significant”—something you think you’ve seen before and know is great—without the baggage of historical particulars. Enjoy how easily MAGA iconography is slipped into the “historically significant” framework. It’s a little bit irreverent, but isn’t it also ennobling? When plunked down in the context of an old master painting, the MAGA ball cap becomes something like the bonnet rouge or liberty cap—the sartorial signifier of revolt for our age.

Okay, so that meaning might have come across more efficiently if McNaughton had chosen a painting treating the American or French Revolution as his template. But no matter. McNaughton’s historical-art framework makes his production seem special, respectable, even potentially important. He clothes the political vitriol of the day in something that is ostensibly more refined, more enduring, in the vein of “timeless” traditional values.

Sound familiar? McNaughton has put his finger on the pulse of Trump’s GOP, for whom outrage toward the opposition and respect for the old ways, vaguely construed, go hand in hand. The old ways, and the values embedded in them, are precisely what the MAGA movement believes is in danger of being lost if progressivism advances unchecked. It wants to slow things down and map out a future based on the familiar, ostensibly simpler contours of the past. But lacking a coherently articulated platform, the MAGA movement relies on the affiliated to just know when greatness was, who made it, and which values should be restored. It’s an exclusive club that is consolidated with each hashtag, retweet, and share that merrily mocks the opposition or pledges allegiance to Trump. McNaughton’s painted memes not only show his understanding of the Trumpist GOP then, but also contribute to the in-group consolidation process by supplying imagery that people can rally around.

In The Con-Artist, painted during the 2016 campaign, McNaughton foisted Hillary Clinton onto Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1893). He then invited followers on Facebook to identify “ten names hidden in the painting of those who have suffered under her eyes.” They had no trouble. “Only ten names?” one person asked. In The Masterpiece, which McNaughton released on Twitter in August, Trump sits under the vaulted ceiling of a Gothic cathedral, palette in hand. But we can’t see the painting on his easel because, as McNaughton explained on his website and in his social-media posts, the painting represents Trump’s “greatest achievements,” and these have yet to be revealed. All that we see beneath a heavy crimson curtain is a corner of vaguely impressionistic brushwork, patches of blue and green.

The painting “captures the spirit, determination and love [Trump] has for America and all of us,” one of McNaughton’s fans wrote on his Facebook page. His critics, naturally, saw it differently and filled in the blanks with memes of Trump unveiling his tax returns, a Nazi flag, the Statue of Liberty in flames, Bill Clinton in the blue dress. Of course, by mocking McNaughton, liberals do as much work as his fans to circulate the work.

McNaughton might just be the most talked about, liked, disliked, shared, hashtagged, and retweeted artist working today. Artists who are N.Y./L.A. famous may have the respect of the art world and stellar gallery representation, but McNaughton has them beat in terms of populist buzz.

And the fact that McNaughton’s paintings are made for circulation on social media doesn’t mean they won’t endure. Historians of the future will look at our digital habits to make sense of the Trump era, especially since social media has played—and will likely continue to play—a crucial role in deciding the outcomes of political contests. There McNaughton’s work will be, waiting to tell posterity the tale of our time. He may never get a show in Chelsea, or be chosen to represent the U.S. at the Venice Biennale, but he won’t care. McNaughton’s ambitions are greater than that.