A picture within a picture

Editor's Note: The portrait of Stephen Colbert returned to view at the National Museum of American History on December 16, 2010. The following blog post was published in 2008; the portrait has been off view since 2009.

Yesterday, to the delight of many visitors, a portrait of Stephen Colbert went on display amongst other entertainment artifacts on the third floor of the museum. “In describing his on-screen persona of a blustery, conservative news commentator,” the new information label reads, Colbert said, “My character is self-important, poorly informed, well-intentioned but an idiot.”

This afternoon I snapped a quick photo of the image on canvas, designed to resemble a formal oil portrait, and overheard a keen-eyed visitor say, “He’s wearing different ties.” I took a closer look and it was true—each of the three Colberts pictured is wearing a differently colored tie. The closest Colbert to the viewer is wearing a blue tie. That Colbert’s reflection in a mirror is wearing a red tie—and the second Colbert’s reflected image (the third Colbert!) is wearing a striped tie.

Why are there three Stephens wearing three different ties? Die-hard fans of the show already know but I needed to do a little digging to find the answer. It turns out that Colbert commissions a new portrait of himself to be “painted” as a way to celebrate each anniversary of the show. As he explained in the October 2006 unveiling of the portrait now in the museum’s collections: “If all goes according to plan, we’ll be adding a new me every year. That way, generations hence, the length of the show’s run will be easy to calculate for scientists in the field of Cobert-ology.”

Colbert When I came back to my office to upload the photo, I did another double-take. If you look closely at the image from my camera phone you’ll notice a continuation of the “picture within a picture” theme. I captured within my frame—completely serendipitously, I might add—two other onlookers taking photos of the portrait themselves, each using their own camera phones. So what you’re seeing is a photo by me of two visitors taking photos of a portrait within a portrait within a portrait.

“So what?” you might ask. Well, this experience reminds me of some things I’ve learned about observing objects of history: (1) Don’t forget to look closely at the artifacts, and (2) keep your ears open—you never know what you (or that visitor next to you) might discover! With this advice in mind, I invite you to come and check out the portrait now on view at the museum along with many other fascinating national treasures. Let us know what unexpected things you see or hear during your visit!

Dana Allen-Greil is the new media project manager at the National Museum of American History.