Capital Revival : Portraits Not All Pretty as a Picture

Times Staff Writer

What Gilbert Stuart did for George Washington was hailed as a masterpiece. But Lyndon B. Johnson rejected his as "the ugliest thing I ever saw," Henry A. Kissinger indignantly demanded a new one and Richard M. Nixon quietly supplied a replacement years after he left the White House.

Painting official portraits of high government officials, it seems, has not always been easy. Yet, despite the difficulties in the White House and elsewhere, art experts say portrait painting is undergoing a profitable revival all across the United States.

In Washington, politicians great and small have developed a keen interest in leaving their images for posterity. A sea of portraits--presidents, Cabinet members, congressional leaders, military officials--adorns Washington's corridors of power like wallpaper. And elsewhere, universities, corporations, law firms and other such institutions are scrambling to fill empty wall space with likenesses of their illustrious leaders.

Taste Re-Emerging

"It's not a field that has had great prestige in the art world," conceded Marc Pachter, assistant director of the National Portrait Gallery. "But this is slowly changing. The taste for portraiture may be re-emerging."

It may never reach the level of the early days of the Republic, before photographs began eroding the portrait-painting business. By the mid-1800s, there were 3,000 portrait artists, according to E. P. Richardson in his book "Painting in America." The young nation produced an impressive array of such artists, including not only Stuart, but also John Singleton Copley, Thomas Sully, Samuel F. B. Morse and John Singer Sargent.

Today's portrait painters--the likes of Everett Raymond Kinstler, Robert Vickrey, Herbert E. Abrams and Jean Pilk--may not be so renowned, but their works appear here in increasing numbers.

And then there is the unique case of C. J. Fox.

Fox Signature

Fox's name is affixed to dozens of Washington oil portraits, including those of former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, former Chief Justice Harlan F. Stone and Secretary of State George P. Shultz--the latter painted when he was labor secretary 15 years ago. More recently, James G. Watt, President Reagan's controversial first Interior secretary, commissioned a Fox portrait when he left office in 1983.

Watt was satisfied with the result, which shows him wearing a lapel pin with the buffalo head pointing to the right instead of to the left, as it actually appears on the official Interior Department seal.

"The wonderful thing about this portrait is my husband's features," said Leilani Watt, who watched for several hours as Fox retouched Watt's face and other details until she was satisfied. "He was marvelous," she said.

What she did not know was that Fox did not paint the portrait. In fact, it was painted by one Irving Resnicoff, an 89-year-old artist who worked in his New York apartment from photographs supplied to Fox by Watt. For decades, Resnicoff has worked for the Fox family turning out portraits with the C. J. Fox signature.

Fox, who touched up Resnicoff's portrait of Watt, is the grandson of Charles J. Fox, who founded the family business and lent his name to all its works. "We've done more portraits in Washington than any other single signature," Fox said.

"I never refer to my having painted the portrait," Fox insisted. Although he is a trained artist, he said, he prefers to concentrate on seeking commissions and leave the painting to Resnicoff.

At least Watt liked his portrait, regardless of who painted it. The same cannot be said for a bipartisan group of Washington politicians who have sent their portraits back to the artists or switched painters altogether.

When Kissinger objected to his likeness, artist Gardner Cox not only refused to touch it up but even showed it to the press. Kissinger got another artist and another portrait.

Took Off Weight

Howard H. Baker Jr., who retired from the Senate last year as its Republican leader, objected that his portrait made him look too heavy. The work was returned twice to artist Abrams to slim him down.

But the loudest cry of all came from Lyndon Johnson when he saw Peter Hurd's portrait of him in 1967. The artist and subject had a rocky relationship from the beginning; Johnson even fell asleep during a sitting. The President rejected Hurd's painting immediately, and the artist responded, "Men are much vainer than women."

Johnson then chose Elizabeth Shoumatoff, who also painted his wife, Lady Bird, for the portrait that now hangs in the White House. Hurd's rendition is in the National Portrait Gallery, a gift of the late artist.

Reagan has not decided who will paint his portrait. But White House Curator Clement E. Conger believes presidents should have their portraits painted when they enter office, before the grinding job has taken its customary heavy toll on their appearance.

Nixon was painted in a New York hotel room several months after the Watergate scandal forced him to resign, and Conger said the northern light and a green blotter on the desk left the portrait with an unflattering tone. "It was a good likeness but not a great picture," he said. Nixon later sent the White House another portrait.

Sad-Looking Portrait

Likewise, Mrs. Nixon's portrait was painted at San Clemente six months after she suffered a stroke. "To me and some of the family," Conger said, "it is a little too sad-looking, but that's the effect of the stroke." Conger tried to persuade artist Henriette Wyeth Hurd to work from some earlier photographs, but she told him, "I paint only what I see."

Conger rates the official portrait of President Jimmy Carter as the best of those of recent presidents because it is "timeless." Abrams, the painter, agreed in advance to destroy the canvas if Carter and his family rejected it. But they didn't. Carter's mother, Lillian, declared, "It looks just like him."

Carter almost changed the course of Washington portrait history when he imposed a ban on the use of taxpayer dollars to pay for official oil portraits and suggested that photographs be used instead. His ban angered many of his own Cabinet members, who had their portraits painted anyway, often with donations from friends.

Carter's ban also caught up with some Cabinet members from previous administrations, including Elliot L. Richardson, whose portrait as commerce secretary under President Gerald R. Ford had not yet been painted. In protest, Richardson bought his own canvas and did a self-portrait while looking in the mirror. The only problem, he recalled, is that "the painting shows me as if I were left-handed and with a part on the opposite side of my head."

The advantage of a self-portrait, Richardson added, "is that you can make yourself look younger and handsomer and give yourself more hair." He should know; he has held a record four Cabinet posts and has a portrait for each.

Traditional Styles

Rarely do official Washington portraits stray from traditional styles and poses--a reasonable likeness in formal attire, sitting in a chair or standing near a desk.

Richardson's portrait as attorney general--he served until Nixon fired him during the Watergate scandal's 1973 "Saturday night massacre"--fits this description. The nearby portrait of Nicholas D. Katzenbach, attorney general in the Johnson Administration, definitely does not. The $5,000 work by artist Alan Wood-Thomas is a modern abstract-style painting with sharp angles and bold colors.

Katzenbach liked it, but his opinion is not widely shared. "It's the ugliest painting in the department," said Terrence B. Adamson, the department's public affairs chief during the Carter Administration. "He looks like a man in a black sweat shirt in a prison cell."

Nor does Adamson, who was on the job when the Justice Department restored and rehung its Cabinet portraits and published a catalogue of them, have much regard for the impressionistic portrait of Ramsey Clark, Katzenbach's successor as attorney general. "We moved them as far away as we could," he said.

Adamson didn't have to worry about John N. Mitchell, who was Nixon's attorney general until he resigned in 1972 to run his reelection campaign and eventually served 19 months in prison for Watergate-related charges. In the Carter years, Mitchell's portrait still had not even been commissioned; his $15,000 portrait was hung only in January, 1985.

Like Justice, the Treasury Department has undertaken the long-overdue cleaning and rehanging of portraits of 65 secretaries. "We're very excited to see these paintings come to life," said Judith H. Lanius, the department's new curator.

Rumsfeld Portrait

It took the official portrait of Donald H. Rumsfeld, Ford's defense secretary, several years to come to life. The portrait lay unopened in its packing crate for several years until someone inquired about it.

From the artists' standpoint, painting top officials, especially presidents, is an honor and often leads to long friendships.

"I feel very privileged," said New York artist Kinstler, who has painted Ford six times as well as more than three dozen Cabinet officers, including six of the last eight Treasury secretaries. Kinstler, who has a two-year waiting list, is starting the official portrait of former Interior Secretary William P. Clark, a Californian who has opted to be painted in a Western-style shirt.

The pay for Washington portrait artists isn't bad, either. Painters of presidential portraits, who are commissioned by the White House Historic Assn., earn about $15,000, and portraits of Cabinet members typically go for about $10,000.

"They are our bread and butter," Rutgers Barclay, president of Portraits Inc. of New York, said of official ceremonial portraits. His Park Avenue gallery is devoted exclusively to matching clients with its stable of more than 100 artists, including Aaron Shikler, who painted White House portraits of both President John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline.

Encounters Difficulties

Vickrey, a Massachusetts artist who has painted 77 covers for Time magazine and specializes in egg tempera, spaces his formal portraits several years apart because of the difficulties he encounters with his subjects. But Vickrey gladly accepted when House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass), who is retiring at the end of this year, requested him.

When O'Neill arrived at Vickrey's Cape Cod studio last summer for a sitting, he started to light up his cigar. "I told him if he did that I'd have to paint him with a cigar in his mouth," Vickrey said. The painting shows O'Neill standing in a navy suit--minus a cigar.

"I try hard not to judge the people I paint," said Abrams, who is now painting White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan in his former post as Treasury secretary. "Nobody gets to these high positions unless they have qualities that are rather unusual. I'm looking for the things that put them where they are."

Abrams worries about young artists who paint portraits too early in their careers and forget everything but pleasing the subject. "If you start too soon," he said, "you aren't mature enough to deal with people of this prestige and power without being cowed."

Art Form Dying?

Vickrey similarly worries that portrait painting as an art form is dying even as more and more officials seek to have themselves rendered on canvas. "Most people who paint portraits are doing a job," he said. "They are not trying to create a work of psychological depth."

Portraits are big business not only in the Cabinet departments but also in Congress, where likenesses of party leaders and committee chairmen adorn the walls of countless corridors and hearing rooms.

The staff of the House Science and Technology Committee jokingly refers to its hearing room as the Jean Pilk room because the Virginia artist has painted three of the chamber's four portraits of previous chairmen.

A portrait of House Rules Committee Chairman Claude Pepper (D-Fla.), unveiled last fall, shows him typically attired in a state of Florida tie. Nearby are personal mementos, a small copy of a painting of his late wife, Mildred, a golf ball and tiny palm tree. The $15,000 portrait was a gift of constituents and friends.

"I hope those who have to do with the location of portraits will look upon it with kindness and will be as gentle to it as they possibly can," Pepper said with a twinkle in his eye that revealed the ultimate fear of anyone who has their portrait painted--that someday they will hang only in a dusty attic.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World