Elaine de Kooning’s attempt to capture the essence of John F. Kennedy in the vivid colors and broad brush strokes of abstract art resulted in the striking portrait that is on permanent display in the “America’s Presidents” exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. The story of how she came to paint it is even more extraordinary, and illustrates why capturing Kennedy on a canvas or in a book can be so challenging, and such an obsession, for artists, biographers and historians.
The trustees of the Truman Library chose de Kooning to paint the notoriously restless Kennedy because she had a reputation for being “the fastest brush in the East,” capable of finishing a portrait after a single sitting. When she arrived at the Kennedy family’s Palm Beach, Fla., estate on Dec. 31, 1962, she planned on making some quick sketches before finishing the portrait in a temporary studio in West Palm Beach. She had expected, she said, the monochrome man of the newspaper photographs. Instead, Kennedy struck her as “incandescent, golden,” “bigger than life” and inhabiting “a different dimension.” After a single morning she decided he was too intriguing and changeable to capture in one portrait. She stayed for four days, drawing dozens of sketches, charcoals and watercolors, and working on several oil portraits at once.
She returned to New York with her sketches and portraits, and soon there were more, many more. During 1963 she drew and painted only Kennedy, sketching him when he appeared on television and clipping photographs from newspapers and magazines that she used as models for more drawings and oils. She had, she admitted to a friend, fallen “a teeny little bit in love with him.” After running out of space in her studio, she papered her living quarters with more sketches and photographs, so that whenever she cooked, ate or took a bath, she saw him. When Kennedy’s friend Bill Walton visited her studio in early November 1963 — a few weeks before the president’s trip to Dallas — he found 38 oil portraits in various stages of completion leaning against walls or sitting on easels. De Kooning had hung so many studies of Kennedy on the walls that she had to climb a ladder to reach them all.
I can empathize. Anyone visiting my office while I was completing “JFK’s Last Hundred Days” would have come across a similar scene. I had started with one bookshelf with 40 books — memoirs by members of Kennedy’s inner circle; biographies of JFK, Jackie, Teddy, Bobby and Rose. Within months I had five bookshelves and more than 300 books. I crammed eight file cabinets with copies of oral-history transcripts and copies of documents in the Kennedy Library. Boxes of tapes of his Oval Office conversations purchased from the library sat on the floor. I bought two long trestle tables that I covered with files chronicling what he had done and said on each of his last 100 days in office. I listened to his news conferences (he gave one every 16 days, on average); watched his home movies; bought the books he read during these last days, and read them; and photocopied the newspapers he read, and read those, too.