The artist behind a gigantic painting of Donald Trump has been locked for years in a legal battle to get his piece of art a spot in a Smithsonian museum.
Julian Raven and his huge, eight-foot tall, 16-foot wide painting of Trump, “Unafraid & Unashamed,” was the aesthetic highpoint of last month’s Conservative Political Action Conference, after he displayed it at the annual conservative confab. Countless CPAC attendees posed for pictures with Raven’s giant Trump head, which he painted posed next to a falling American flag that’s being rescued by a bald eagle while flying in space.
But while the accolades and selfies were abundant at CPAC, Raven’s pièce de résistance has proved less popular in one of Washington’s most prestigious museums. For more than two years, he’s tried to convince the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery to display the 300-pound painting of Trump, with no success. Now, after failing to win his case in D.C.’s U.S. District Court, he’s threatening to take the matter to the top of the judicial system in order to get his painting placed.
“I have this incredible, unprecedented case that may go all the way to the Supreme Court,” painter Julian Raven tells The Daily Beast.
Raven initially requested that the National Portrait Gallery display his painting to coincide with Trump’s 2017 inauguration. But he said that the gallery’s director, Kim Sajet, told him that it was “too political” and “too big” and, generally, just not very good.
“The last thing she said to me was ‘it’s no good,’” Raven said.
Soon thereafter, Raven filed a lawsuit against the Smithsonian, claiming that the museum had infringed on his First Amendment rights and his Fifth Amendment right to due process. He says that the reason his work is stuck in litigation and not on the wall of one of the premier galleries in the nation’s capital is strictly a matter of politics. The art world, he insists, “is controlled by very strong political ideologies on the left.”
The National Portrait Gallery declined to comment, citing Raven’s lawsuit.
Raven, who lives in upstate New York, first got the idea for his enormous Trump painting in 2015 when he saw the then-presidential candidate on television.
“I just had the words go through my mind: ‘unafraid and unashamed,’” Raven told The Daily Beast. “The image in my mind was this soaring flagpole, a U.S. flag pole falling to the ground. Right before it falls to the ground, an eagle swoops in and snatches it.”
After being fascinated by the image, Raven got to work. A few weeks later, he was done.
“It’s a painting of Trump,” Raven said. “It’s gotta be yuge!”
Raven soon took the painting on the road. Trump son Eric Trump posed for a picture in front of it at an Iowa campaign stop, and Raven managed to get a truck bearing the painting’s image photographed in front of Trump Tower.
But Raven, who describes himself as a “starving artist,” says the painting and its pro-Trump politics have also damaged his livelihood by pigeonholing him as a political artist. In 2018, Raven said, he sold just one painting.
“It’s been a very uncertain and oftentimes very discouraging journey that did affect negatively my art career,” Raven said. “My art sales just took a nosedive.”
Raven, who is representing himself in the case, hasn’t had much luck in courtrooms so far. His attempt to force the museum to hang his painting rests on shaky legal footing, and a judge on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed his initial lawsuit on the grounds that the museum enjoys “what amounts to complete discretion in choosing portraits.” Rather than having his own free speech rights violated, the judge ruled, Raven was attempting to compel speech from the museum.
“The First Amendment simply does not apply to government art selections, no matter how arbitrary,” Judge Trevor McFadden wrote in the memorandum dismissing Raven’s charge.
Raven hasn’t given up. He has a pending appeal in the D.C. Circuit court of appeals, premised on a complicated theory about the Smithsonian’s legal status within the federal government. Raven argues that the Smithsonian is not a part of the federal government, but is instead a trust run by the government. That means, Raven claims, “guaranteeing free speech participatory rights to the beneficiaries, we the people!”
Raven says the quality of his work shouldn’t be relevant to whether his painting is exhibited at the gallery. He compares his painting to a 1990 caricature of Trump from The Nation that’s already in the museum’s collection, which he says “looks like a guy drew it on a napkin in a restaurant.”
“It’s not an archive of great paintings, it’s an archive of portraits,” Raven said.