Samuel Bookatz, 99

Eclectic Washington painter Samuel Bookatz dies at 99

Samuel Bookatz called himself
Samuel Bookatz called himself "an everything painter" and sculptor. (1998 Photo By Jan Kenneth Herman)
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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Samuel Bookatz, 99, an artist whose talents took him from a bohemian tour of pre-World War II Europe to the Roosevelt White House and whose work hung in collections of major galleries, died of atherosclerotic heart disease Nov. 16 at his home in Georgetown.

Mr. Bookatz, still productive in his last year, worked in a variety of styles and media, creating art with oil and tempera, sculpting in concrete and using tree bark. When he spent winters in Hawaii, he would strip his hotel bed of its sheets to create a canvas for his exuberant, richly saturated work.

"I'm an everything painter, really," he told a Washington Post writer in 1999. "I can work on 12 canvases in one day ranging from the realist to the abstract. . . . I don't know what's going to happen from minute to minute." The only kind of painting he didn't like, he said, is the kind that comes with instructions.

In early 2000, the Corcoran Gallery of Art staged his first solo show since 1950, although several museums own his work, including the Phillips Collection and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. An accomplished artist who never became a household name, Mr. Bookatz may have been the last artist whose studio was once in the Lincoln Bedroom of the White House.

Mr. Bookatz was born Oct. 3, 1910, in Philadelphia to Russian immigrant parents who wanted him to be a doctor, but art was his calling from childhood. He often visited his brother, a surgeon in Cleveland, and practiced drawing the human form in the hospital. Graduating from the Cleveland School of Art, he studied under Russian painter Alexandre Iacovleff and attended Harvard Medical School to improve his understanding of anatomy. A timely scholarship award enabled him to set out for Europe in 1937, and for the next two years, he was an artistic vagabond.

The king of Italy, Victor Emmanuel, attended his first exhibit at the American Academy of Rome, and Mr. Bookatz had a photo of the two of them together to prove it. His travels more often led him into interactions with gendarmes than royalty; he was arrested for sitting in a window alcove to sketch Benito Mussolini delivering a fascist diatribe, thus learning that one did not sit in Il Duce's presence. Another time, Nazi guards threw him off a train for helping a Jewish child. French police detained him as a suspected saboteur the night a ship mysteriously burned at Marseilles. Virtually penniless, he boarded the last U.S. ship to leave France before the Germans marched into Paris in 1940.

Back in Cleveland, Mr. Bookatz did a portrait of a family friend who had connections to the White House. He asked the young artist what he planned to do about the draft, and Mr. Bookatz had no good answer. Days later, the friend returned to announce: "You're in the Navy. Report to the Navy surgeon general in Washington. You're going to be an artist," Mr. Bookatz later told Jan Kenneth Herman, a historian in the Navy Medical Department.

Without a day of training, and not even knowing enough to salute an admiral he passed in the street, Mr. Bookatz found himself with a commission.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a former secretary of the Navy, wanted a good artist to document the service's contributions to the war effort. With little office space available in wartime Washington, Mr. Bookatz's studio for two years was the Lincoln Bedroom in the White House.

"The best light I had was sitting on the edge of Lincoln's bed and painting with my easel propped up in front of me," he told the Cleveland Jewish News. "Eleanor Roosevelt used to type her daily newspaper column, 'My Day,' in the room next door, and the noise really disturbed my concentration," he added with a chuckle. When he finished his day's work, he washed his brushes in the Executive Mansion's sink, "right near where the president's meals were being prepared," he told Herman.

He painted both Roosevelts, and his portraits of admirals still hang at National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda.

As the war was drawing to a close, Mr. Bookatz was transferred to the naval hospital in Oakland, Calif., where he helped rebuild mutilated faces of soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen injured in the Pacific by cutting cartilage for facial reconstructions and by sketching patients as the operations were underway.

He returned to the Washington area after the war and married Helen Suzzann Meyer Bookatz, who survives him. In 1948, he won the Corcoran's regional Biennial award for a sprawling conté crayon figural drawing.

In the 1950s and 1960s, he moved into charcoal and cubist still-life paintings and designed and built a number of homes that also served as galleries in the Washington area, although his main studio had been in Georgetown since 1946. While working on his Alexandria studio, he fell into a pit that had been part of an Underground Railroad stop during the Civil War, Herman said. Three times in late 1980s, bears visited his property near Tysons Corner, once knocking over a six-foot concrete nude sculpture.

That was less distressing than the 1989 destruction by vandals of two four-ton religious works, an 11-foot angel holding a harp and the Ten Commandments and an eight-foot menorah. When Mr. Bookatz discovered the loss of the works, he wept.

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