Everett Raymond Kinstler, who began his career as a comic book illustrator and became one of the country’s premier portrait artists, with paintings of celebrities, business tycoons, Cabinet officers and eight presidents, died May 26 at a hospital in Bridgeport, Conn. He was 92.
He had heart-related ailments, said his wife, Peggy Kinstler.
After dropping out of high school at 15, Mr. Kinstler made his living as an artist for more than 75 years. He was never part of the avant-garde or featured in cutting-edge art world shows, but his realistic portrait studies — all based on hours-long sessions with his subjects — made him one of the most popular and successful artists of his time.
In 2016, Mr. Kinstler estimated that he had painted at least 2,500 portraits on commission, then added, “I think that’s conservative.”
He didn’t depict his subjects with photographic precision but painted in a slightly impressionistic style, sometimes making famous faces appear slightly younger or more heroic than they were in real life.
Mr. Kinstler’s brushstrokes were plainly visible in his work, creating the paradoxical sensation that his paintings were quickly dashed off, yet crafted with deliberate observation.
“The camera records a moment,” he told the New York Times in 1989. “The painter makes a statement.”
After working as a comic book and magazine illustrator, he turned to portrait painting in the late 1950s. One of his first subjects was Forrest E. Mars Jr., whose family’s candy empire, based in McLean, Va., produces Snickers, Milky Way and M&M’s.
In the early 1960s, Mr. Kinstler painted astronauts Scott Carpenter and Alan B. Shepard Jr. and soon moved into the orbit of official Washington, with portraits of several members of the Cabinet of President Lyndon B. Johnson. He eventually painted more than 50 Cabinet officials, including two portraits of Robert M. Gates, once as CIA director in the 1990s and again as Barack Obama’s defense secretary in 2012.
“A sure sign you’ve been in Washington too long,” Gates quipped to Time magazine, “is when Ray Kinstler has more than one crack at your portrait a generation apart.”
The first president Mr. Kinstler painted was Richard M. Nixon, who he said was cold and aloof — “I don’t think he was interested in the portrait at all,” Mr. Kinstler told the Daily Beast in 2016.
He had better luck with other commanders in chief, portraying all of them from Nixon through Donald Trump, with the exception of Obama. (He painted Trump in 2010, before he ran for office.)
Mr. Kinstler’s technique with all his subjects, including presidents, was to meet in person, set up his easel and start talking, seeking to explore his sitters’ personalities through conversation and humor.
“Ray relishes what inspires a sitter,” one of his subjects, actor Christopher Plummer, said in 2017, when a room of Mr. Kinstler’s work was dedicated at the Players, a private theatrical club in New York. “His work reveals hope, humor and the joy of living.”
Mr. Kinstler often painted multiple portraits of a single subject, including more than 10 of President Gerald R. Ford, with whom he had a particular rapport. He also made several paintings each of presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Mr. Kinstler has 84 works in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery, and his paintings of Ford and Reagan are the official White House portraits. His work was often shown in museum exhibitions and featured in books.
“His personality came through in his painting, the dynamism, energy and flourish,” Amy Henderson, a former National Portrait Gallery historian who has written about Mr. Kinstler and curated exhibitions of his work, said in an interview. “It was all about storytelling. That core of inspiration is reflected in the brushstrokes.”
Over the years, Mr. Kinstler painted portraits of actors John Wayne, Jason Robards, Gregory Peck, Carol Burnett and Clint Eastwood; Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Harry A. Blackmun; Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. and former Marine Corps commandant Gen. P.X. Kelley; first ladies Lady Bird Johnson, Betty Ford and Laura Bush; and authors Tennessee Williams, Tom Wolfe and Dr. Seuss.
Many high-powered people posed for Mr. Kinstler, but the one who filled him with terror was actress Katharine Hepburn.
“Of all the people I’ve ever painted,” he told the New York Daily News in 2008, “she was the only one who intimidated me. Though we crossed swords, we ended up friends.”
An informal painting — featured in a 2007 exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery — shows her sitting in a hat and red sweater. She was upset because it showed her with a cigarette in her hand.
“Take that out,” she demanded. Mr. Kinstler refused, according to a story recounted by Henderson.
“No, that’s what you were doing,” he said. “It stays in.”
Over time, it became Hepburn’s favorite portrait.
Everett Raymond Kinstler was born Aug. 5, 1926, in Manhattan. His father was a businessman, his mother a homemaker.
He showed early talent in art and left high school to “ink” the drawings of comic book artists. (One of his high school classmates was singer Tony Bennett, a serious avocational painter who later became a close friend.)
After serving in the Army during World War II, Mr. Kinstler returned to his work as illustrator, moving on to pulp magazines and lurid paperback book covers — what he called “cowboys and cleavage.”
“I was consumed with working,” he told the Santa Fe New Mexican in 2006. “It wasn’t unusual for me to get a cup of coffee and a Camel cigarette and work on the drawing board around the clock. I worked seven days a week.”
His early artistic models included painter John Singer Sargent and illustrator James Montgomery Flagg, who created the “I Want You” poster of Uncle Sam during World War I. In the 1940s, Mr. Kinstler befriended Flagg, who looked at his work and declared, “You’re doomed to be an artist.”
Mr. Kinstler, who lived in Easton, Conn., was booked years in advance for portraits, earning as much as $100,000 apiece. He taught at the Art Students League and the National Arts Club in New York, where he maintained a studio until shortly before his death.
His first marriage, to Lea Nation, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife since 1996, the former Peggy Chartier; two daughters from his first marriage; three stepchildren; and nine grandchildren.
One of the many actors Mr. Kinstler portrayed was James Cagney, who often played tough guys in Hollywood movies. He was sitting with Cagney once when a young actor approached him for advice.
“And Jim looked over at the fellow,” Mr. Kinstler said in 2006, “and said, ‘Kid, learn your lines, be honest, plant your feet on the ground, and when you say something, mean it.’ And the way he said that still gives me chills.
“That’s the way I approach my own work. I learn my lines, I do the best I can, and I mean it.”