Historical Portraitist Michael Gnatek Jr.

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Michael Gnatek Jr., 72, a leading artist of historical portraits, who also illustrated an infamous Washington Post story about a nonexistent child heroin addict in 1980, died Sept. 28 at Suburban Hospital from complications of multiple myeloma. He lived in Washington until moving early this year to Manor Care at Chevy Chase.

Mr. Gnatek (pronounced guh-NAH-tek) received his art training at Yale University and in the Marine Corps, where he was a combat artist and portraitist for the weekly Sunset Parade at Washington's Marine Barracks.

He worked in advertising for many years, first with department stores and later at his agency while polishing a talent for painting portraits of historical figures. Long interested in history, Mr. Gnatek began to accept commissions on historical subjects and in 1975 did four murals for the National Air and Space Museum. He painted a mural on the history of the telephone for Disney World in Florida.

He became a specialist in portraits of military figures and American Indians and found his work in demand by historical societies, private collectors and commercial galleries nationwide. In the early 1990s, he closed his advertising agency, Gnatek Associates, to concentrate on painting.

The family of Gen. George S. Patton commissioned a portrait of the general, and Mr. Gnatek's other subjects included Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, George Armstrong Custer, Sitting Bull and buffalo soldiers of the 19th century.

Each oil or acrylic portrait took Mr. Gnatek four to six months to finish, as he immersed himself in documents and visual records to give each brush stroke historical authenticity. His studio was filled with antique rifles, clothing and saddles, and he sometimes took part in Civil War reenactments.

Mr. Gnatek was born in Hadley, Mass., and had an early interest in art. He studied painting at Yale with abstract artist Josef Albers, served in the Marine Corps from 1955 to 1958 and then settled in Washington. He was an advertising artist for Hecht's and Raleigh's department stores and for advertising agencies before opening Gnatek Associates in the early 1970s. His clients included the D.C. Chamber of Commerce and the D.C. Lottery.

Mr. Gnatek's experience in the Marines, where he often made on-the-spot sketches of officers, was useful in executing freelance jobs on deadline. In September 1980, Mr. Gnatek was assigned by The Post to make a drawing to accompany "Jimmy's World," a story about an 8-year-old heroin addict by then-Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke.

In several meetings with the artist, Cooke became emotional, Mr. Gnatek's family said, as she described "Jimmy" and the sordid world in which he lived. When she saw Mr. Gnatek's shadowy black-and-white portrait of a thin, wide-eyed boy, she told Mr. Gnatek, "That's exactly what he looked like."

The story, which ran Sept. 28, 1980, created an immediate sensation, as lawmakers called for prosecution of drug dealers preying on the young, and D.C. Mayor Marion Barry ordered hundreds of police officers and social workers to search the city for "Jimmy."

Part of the story's impact came from Mr. Gnatek's grim, memorable portrait, described in a 1981 article by Washington Post ombudsman Bill Green: "It shows a young man, his face twisted in a half-smile, huge eyes watching, his slender arm gripped by a huge fist as a needle is injected."

Cooke's story was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 1981 but was soon exposed as a hoax. Admitting that "Jimmy" did not exist, she resigned under pressure, and The Post returned her Pulitzer.

"My father said he was as shocked as anyone," said Mr. Gnatek's son Michael. "He was completely convinced that she had met 'Jimmy' or somebody like him."

Mr. Gnatek was a member of the Society of American Historical Artists and the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Washington.

His wife of 34 years, Mary Shaffer Gnatek, died in 1999.

Survivors include three children, Michael Gnatek of Leesburg, George Gnatek of Washington and Mary Gnatek Harper of Kensington; four brothers; two sisters; and five grandchildren.


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