Fahrelnissa Zeid’s Lost Portrait of Donald Trump

 by Nergis Abıyeva

(1) Fahrelnissa Zeid, Portrait of Donald Trump, ca. late 1980s.
Image reproduced in Zeit Magazin

It has long been rumored that the artist Fahrelnissa Zeid made a portrait of Donald Trump in the late 1980s (Figure 1). Fahrelnissa (1901-1991) was born in Istanbul and throughout her life lived in different cities such as Berlin, Paris, Bagdad, London, and Amman. Considered a pioneer of modern art and noted especially for her experiments in abstraction, she was a prominent figure in the international art scene for decades. The alleged portrait of Trump is known to those who are interested in Fahrelnissa’s work, yet it has never been found. Although the painting is mentioned on the website accompanying the Fahrelnissa Zeid retrospective at Tate Modern in 2017, the portrait itself was not included in the galleries nor in the exhibition catalog. 

I had been aware of the stories about the Trump portrait, which Fahrelnissa was said to have produced by working from a photograph of Donald Trump she found in either a magazine or newspaper--but without any concrete evidence or primary sources to support the narrative, this picture was just a rumor to me. That is, until I encountered a reproduction of the Trump portrait in the archive of Zeit Magazin (the supplement to the German newspaper Die Zeit). As soon as I saw the photo, I was sure that this was a painting by Fahrelnissa. To make sure, I began to write to the various organizations that may have related information such as Tate Modern, Zeit Magazin, and Deutsche Bank. The Tate had no additional sources about the painting, and my correspondence with Deutsche Bank and Zeit Magazin continues.

Just around the same this past June, I presented a lecture on Fahrelnissa's work and shared the image from the magazine archives with the seminar participants. Levent Özmen commented that this image had recently been confirmed to be Fahrelnissa's lost portrait of Trump. During an online conversation with Ceren Erdem, the art historian and former director of Tate Modern Chris Dercon revealed a photograph of the same portrait that he had come across during a visit to Fahrelnissa's family home in the course of his research on the artist. During this presentation, Dercon also reads a letter from Trump to Fahrelnissa from March 1990. After Trump states in the letter that the photograph on which Fahrelnissa’s work is based is under copyright and cannot be shared without permission, he asks: why is her painting so big? Apparently, Fahrelnissa’s portrait was larger than Trump expected. This letter proves that the portrait was made through a photo of Trump at the end of 1989 or early 1990.

Fahrelnissa began to paint portraits in the late 1960s, after losing important, beloved individuals in her life. Reported to have said “I need the warmth of people, intimateness,” she sought to capture on canvas those whom she loved, both alive and gone, such as her late husband Emir Zeid and her sister Aliye Berger.[1] Zeid also painted influential critics of Paris with whom she was friendly  like Charles Estienne, Jacques Lassaigne, and her gallerist Katia Granoff. Which raises the following questions: Did Fahrelnissa make portraits to order? And what exactly had brought Trump and the artist together? 

(2) Fahrelnissa Zeid and Queen Elizabeth, George Gallery, 1948.

We know that Fahrelnissa had a relationship with many political figures throughout her life, which spanned almost the entirety of the 20th century. She had an opportunity to cultivate these networks as a member of the notable Şakir Paşa family and through the consular duties of her husband, the king of Iraq's brother. For example, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder and first president of the Republic of Turkey, often invited the artist to his table.[2] In fact, Fahrelnissa attended the meeting in which the new Turkish alphabet (1928) was unveiled, and it is said that the first word Atatürk wrote with Latin letters was “Fahrünnissa”.[3]  Fahrelnissa would later attend receptions in Berlin in 1936-37 as a guest of Adolf Hitler, and shared with her close circle that she received the führer’s praise.[4] Later on in London, Queen Elizabeth would come to Fahrelnissa's exhibition at the George’s Gallery, and even purchase the painting City Caves, which she liked very much (Figure 2).[5] Although we have all of this information regarding Fahrelnissa’s relationship with different famous (and infamous) individuals, it is still unclear how Trump, who was a businessman trying to build his own identity at the end of the 1980s, order his portrait from Fahrelnissa, who at the time was living in Amman.

(3) Fahrelnissa Zeid, Portrait of Pierre Larock, ca. 1970s. 

Although these puzzles about the portrait still remain, what we know for sure is that Trump did not like this painting. As suggested by Trump's letter to the artist, he was surprised by the size of the work--but all of Fahrelnissa's portraits tend to be quite large. While Dercon suggests that the businessman did not think the work to be “elegant” enough, I believe that Trump actually found this painting to be too elegant, in the sense that the artist took up what could be described as a queer representation of the mogul--matching his crisp tuxedo with dramatic smokey eye makeup. Fahrelnissa deliberately or unconsciously explored gender ambiguity in many of her portraits, especially those featuring male models, like that of Pierre Larock from the 1970s (Figure 3). In other words, the queer-ness that we see in this particular painting is by no means a unique case. However, it is not surprising that Trump, who as we have seen over the years has striven to assert his masculinity many times in different ways, is not a fan of this portrait. Compounding the issue may also be the prominent text in Arabic script appearing in the picture: "Donald Trump" (دونالد ترامپ) scrawls along the bottom of the painting in large blocky letter forms, while the artist's own signature appears just above, like a flower on his lapel.[6] Ultimately, it is unknown where the painting is now--most likely not in the possession of Trump, and perhaps even destroyed.

Does the portrait of Trump by Fahrelnissa have art historical value or an important place in Fahrelnissa’s art? I do not think so. This essay does not seek to make any such claim, but it does have a purpose: Unless we have access to primary sources, identify and reveal them, we have an art history of rumors and urban legends. I wrote this essay for the curious ones like me, who heard the portrait but did not see it, to share the information and photograph that this portrait really exists and leave it to history.

Nergis Abıyeva is an art historian, art critic, and independent researcher based in Istanbul.

This essay was originally published in Turkish on the website Argonotlar.

[1] Şirin Devrim, Şakir Paşa Ailesi: Harika Çılgınlar (1998), 250.

[2] Ibid., 88.

[3] This was a transliteration of how Fahrelnissa's name would have been originally pronounced in Ottoman Turkish, which was written in the Arabic alphabet. Because the artist signed her pictures as "Fahrelnissa" after marrying Emir Zeid, I prefer to respect this decision and refer to her by this name throughout this text.

[4] Devrim, 114.

[5] Ibid., 191.

[6] I would like to thank Rumeysa Kiger and Babak Dolatabati for their help in translating the text in the painting. 


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