Portrait painting is a thorny subject for artists. They not only grapple with how they view their sitters, but also how the sitters view themselves.

There is also the connoisseur’s view to contend with, the critic who assesses the portrait as art. Artists need to make the grade with them, too. As you can see, this kind of painting is a vexing business. I remember thinking I nailed a likeness, but the sitter was appalled. (I’ll recount the sorry tale of a well-known example in a moment).

Mistaken identity

Coming to the Provincetown Art Museum in March are portraits by Jo Hay, who specializes in paintings of female leaders.

Hays calls the sitters in her pictures “Persisters.” But her take on Ruth Bader Ginsburg looks less like one who persists and more like a woman afraid of opening her mouth.

In Hay’s hand, the late Associate Justice appears timid, scared and even spooked. Is there another Ruth Bader Ginsberg I don’t know about because this portrait is way off its mark? Far from Ginsburg’s fainthearted demeanor in Hay’s painting, she was outspoken during her lifetime, particularly about gender equality and women’s rights.

Ginsburg argued those issues before the Supreme Court and is credited with giving rise to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, signed into law in 2009. Owing to that law, female employees can prevail in pay discrimination cases.

So, looking at the totality of Ginsburg’s activism, it’s hard to reconcile that with Hay’s portrait of her. And you have to wonder what the Justice would have thought. I see her running from the Provincetown Museum exhibit hall, thinking there ought to be a law against portrait painting.

In memoria,

Now here’s that well-known example of a failed portrait I mentioned earlier.

I’m thinking of Clare Boothe Luce’s reaction to seeing a portrait she commissioned Frida Kahlo to paint of her late friend Dorothy Hale.

Hayden Herrera’s book “A Biography of Frida Kahlo” quotes Luce: “I will always remember the shock I had when I pulled the painting out of the crate. I felt really physically sick.”

Luce explained that she didn’t know what to do with what she described as a “gruesome painting of a smashed corpse with blood dripping.” Kahlo had pictured Hale after she famously committed suicide by leaping off a New York City building.

Kahlo chose to memorialize the suicide. She even added words across the top of the painting on a banner held by an angel that said, “The Suicide of Dorothy Hale.”

Luce told Herrera: "I would not have requested such a gory picture of my worst enemy, much less of my unfortunate friend." But, Herra defended Kahlo’s portrait of Hale, saying, “Frida’s memorial to Dorothy Hale turned out to be more like a retable (altarpiece) than a recuerdo (remembrance).”

Hay’s portrait of Ginsburg is certainly not gory. But it’s murderous in another way for failing to capture the warrior for women that she was.