Aaron Shikler, a court painter of American nobility whose best known works included the posthumous official White House portrait of John F. Kennedy, a rendering that showed the slain president eyes down and arms folded, in a pose that captured the mystique and solitude of the presidency, died Nov. 12 at his home in Manhattan. He was 93.
The cause was kidney failure, said his daughter, Cathy Shikler-van Ingen.
Mr. Shikler was for decades one of the most sought-after portraitists in the United States. In the political world, his subjects included President Ronald Reagan and first ladies Nancy Reagan and Hillary Rodham Clinton. The banker Robert Lehman posed for him, along with other giants in business, as did eminences of the arts including actress Lauren Bacall.
But Mr. Shikler was most recognized as a painter of the Kennedys. After the president’s assassination in 1963, his widow, Jacqueline Kennedy hired Mr. Shikler to paint their children, Caroline and John-John. Those sessions led to Mr. Shikler’s selection in the late 1960s as the artist who would paint the former first couple’s official White House portraits.
Mr. Shikler turned first to Jacqueline Kennedy, one of the most photographed women of her era. Millions had seen the glamourous photograph of Jackie with the handsome Jack and their baby daughter chewing a string of pearls. Only a few years later, millions would see the image of her as a grieving widow, veiled in black, as her toddler son saluted his father’s passing casket.
In the White House painting, Mr. Shikler said that he sought to reveal more than what he described as the former first lady’s “extraordinary, almost spooky beauty.”
“Anyone could paint her prettiness,” Mr. Shikler told The Washington Post in 1971. “I wanted to paint the haunted look in her eyes.”
Mr. Shikler worked on the portrait for several years. The final product, which he described as “American representational, tempered by a vast study of European tradition,” showed Jacqueline Kennedy in a floor-length peach gown. She stands in front of a fireplace whose mantle holds a bust of a child and a vase of flowers. With her characteristically elegant bearing, she looks off into the distance.
“I tried to show her inner strength,” Mr. Shikler told The Post. “She has this great inner passion, but it’s so strongly controlled. I tried to show in the hands that tension — stiffly under control but ready to coil out. Anyone could have made a languid lady out of her. But that’s not what she’s like.”
In an article for McCall’s magazine, Mr. Shikler wrote that he was granted great artistic freedom in painting President Kennedy, although the former first lady had requested that he not paint her husband “the way everybody does him — with that puffiness under the eyes and every shadow and crease magnified.”
For the president’s pose, Mr. Shikler said he drew inspiration from a photograph of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), John F. Kennedy’s younger brother, at the president’s grave site.
“I painted him with his head bowed, not because I think of him as a martyr, but because I wanted to show him as a president who was a thinker,” Mr. Shikler told The Post. “A thinking president is a rare thing.”
Time magazine selected Mr. Shikler to paint the cover art for the 1981 article designating Ronald Reagan, the president-elect, as man of the year. Wearing denim and a Western-style belt buckle, his top shirt buttons undone and his hands resting comfortably in his back pockets, Reagan appeared to radiate the confidence and optimism that had propelled him from Hollywood to the California governor’s mansion and finally to the White House.
Eight years later, Mr. Shikler painted the official White House portrait of Nancy Reagan, depicting her in a full-length red gown and in a pose, not unlike Jacqueline Kennedy’s, that made her look willowy and regal.
Mr. Shikler also painted, then repainted, an official White House portrait of President Reagan that was said not to have entirely satisfied Nancy Reagan. The work was eventually replaced with a portrait by Everett Raymond Kinstler.
“The portrait painter,” Mr. Shikler once remarked, “is stuck somewhere in there among the couturier, the hairdresser and the masseuse.”
Aaron Shikler was born in Brooklyn on March 18, 1922. His parents, who manufactured clothing, came to the United States from Eastern Europe shortly before World War I. Mr. Shikler grew up with several older sisters, an experience that he said prepared him to paint Jacqueline Kennedy, a woman whom many people saw as elusive.
“There is no mystery in women for me,” the artist once remarked.
Mr. Shikler was an Army Air Forces cartographer in Europe during World War II and later received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Tyler School of Art at Temple University in Philadelphia. He also studied in New York under the artist Hans Hofmann.
With David Levine, the caricaturist whose drawings were a mainstay of the New York Review of Books, Mr. Shikler founded the Painting Group, an association of New York artists who met regularly to work from live models. Their paintings of former U.S. Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor became an exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington.
Mr. Shikler’s other subjects included Robert F. Kennedy, the attorney general in his brother’s administration, first lady Lady Bird Johnson and former Senate majority leader Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.).
Mr. Shikler’s private portraits commanded as much as $125,000, the New York Times reported in 1989. Many of his studies for the Kennedy works were auctioned after Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s death in 1994, with one painting of her and her children fetching $216,000 in 2005.
Mr. Shikler’s wife of 51 years, the former Barbara “Pete” Lurie, died in 1998. Survivors include two children, Cathy Shikler-van Ingen and Clifford Shikler, both of New York City; and five grandchildren.
Both Kennedy portraits were unveiled at the White House in 1971. Some viewers wondered why Mr. Shikler had chosen not to show the president’s eyes.
“Well, everybody goes after the eyes,” he said. “All presidential portraits have eyes that look right at you. I wanted to do something with more meaning. I hoped to show a courage that made him humble.”