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For Travaglini, it's a picture-perfect return

Former Senate leader commissions portrait

Email|Print| Text size + By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / January 19, 2008

Former Senate president Robert E. Travaglini has spent $30,000 from his campaign fund on a most unconventional cause: an oil-on-canvas portrait of himself that will enshrine the East Boston politician alongside other former Senate presidents including Calvin Coolidge, Horace Mann, and William M. Bulger.

In looking to record his image for posterity, Travaglini is taking a path not dictated by tradition. While the State House has a portrait of nearly every governor, save Mitt Romney, and a handful from Colonial days, it has never been understood that Senate presidents offer up paintings of themselves. Some have; most haven't.

Travaglini is the first known to have selected an artist, Thomas Ouellette of Boston, a contemporary realist well known for painting still-life scenes of ordinary objects, such as tableware, kitchen appliances, and light bulbs.

Only 11 out of 93 Senate presidents in Massachusetts history have a portrait hanging among 86 governors at the State House, most of them from the early 1800s, said Susan Greendyke Lachevre, who oversees State House artwork. No House speaker has ever had a painting done, unless he has gone on to higher office.

"I had never really thought about it," said Thomas F. Birmingham, who held the office for seven years before Travaglini and said he may now have to consider having his own portrait done. "I'm sure my mother would love it."

A spokesman for Senate President Therese Murray, who came into office with Travaglini's support and would decide what to do with the portrait, said she has not yet been approached by Travaglini about where to hang the piece. But the spokesman, David Falcone, said they would be happy to find a spot for him in the pastel-colored Senate Reading Room, where most of the other portraits are displayed.

Some current portraits could be shuffled in the process. Bulger, whose portrait was installed a year ago and now sits on a wall by itself, may have to be moved to the left to make room.

Travaglini rose from a group of Senate hopefuls in 2003 to become the first Italian-American to lead the 40-member body. After four years at the helm, the affable politician left last March to start a lobbying firm.

Travaglini did not respond to requests for comment, but his legal adviser and business partner, Thomas R. Kiley, acting as his spokesman, said the portrait was not Travaglini's idea. He said the former Senate president agreed to it at the urging of longtime friends and constituents.

"They are as proud of Bob as people were about General Hooker and Paul Revere and John Hancock," Kiley said. "There is a desire to honor his accomplishments appropriately."

He would reveal few details about the painting, but said: "Bob says it's beautiful. But I look at his face all the time. I don't know how beautiful it can be."

Ouellette had never painted a politician, although he has done other portraits, including a former Olympian, college professor, and nude women. Travaglini is depicted wearing a gray suit and a grin, sitting in a chair inside the Senate president's office.

"Some men like to look macho and stern," Ouellette said. "I've given him a bit of a smile, without it being a toothy smile."

Ouellette, who paints in his Boston studio, said that he was approached by Travaglini about a year ago, several months before he left office, and that the portrait is scheduled to be completed in late March.

James A. Aloisi Jr., one of Travaglini's longtime friends, said he was among those who pushed him to do it.

"It was like pulling teeth," he said. "It's not something he would have thought about. He doesn't have much of an ego, so doing a portrait came from people like myself who care very deeply about his ascension to that office."

The gubernatorial portrait is a longstanding State House tradition that former governors have used to put a final stamp on their legacies. William F. Weld, a hunter, posed at Fresh Pond in Cambridge wearing blue jeans, with an armadillo (a personal mascot) in the background. Michael S. Dukakis, who cultivated an image as a thrifty man-of-the-people, considered using a photograph to save money before setting on a $10,000 oil painting.

Following her 21-months in office, Jane Swift unveiled her $40,000 portrait in 2005, showing her wearing a dark suit and pearls, holding a sheath of Senate bills.

Senate presidents have their photos taken, and they are displayed along the walls inside the wood-paneled office. House speakers do the same thing, although those rooms are generally closed to the public.

"They are recognized and appreciated, but it's not a formal program like the governors," Lachevre said. "It probably started with an old Senate president who gave it as a gift. We acquired some early paintings, and suddenly there was a collection."

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.

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