Sitters for Boris Chaliapin’s portraits recall his friendly demeanor and witty banter. When painting Julia Child for Time magazine, he’d take breaks to buy pickle juice for a Russian soup they prepared during their sessions. In the final piece, which appeared on the November 25, 1966 issue, the chef’s head floats on top of a crimson background surrounded by steaming pots and pans, cake molds, and a fish. One critic described it as resembling “the First Apparition in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.”
Chaliapin was Time’s most prolific artist, creating more than 400 cover images between 1942 and 1970. Twenty-six of his original paintings, most of which eventually appeared on the magazine’s cover, are now the focus of the exhibition “Mr. Time: Portraits by Boris Chaliapin,” opening May 17 at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Historian and curator James Barber selected the pictures from the gallery’s Time Collection of more than 2,000 works, which includes art by Jacob Lawrence and George Segal.
Earning the nickname “Mr. Time,” Chaliapin executed likenesses at lightning speed, often in less than 12 hours. His realistic style included every mole and stray hair, and remained much the same throughout his career, even when Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, and Pop art were all the rage. He did, however, take some artistic liberties in his backdrops, adding details to reflect a subject’s occupation or personality.
Chaliapin came from a family of Russian virtuosos. His father, Feodor Chaliapin, was a renowned operatic basso, and his brother, Feodor, Jr., acted in Hollywood films. Boris had art training in Russia and Paris, and an exhibition in London before he began working for Time. His first commission for the magazine was of Indian independence leader Jawaharlal Nehru in 1942. Many more followed, including politicians (Harry S. Truman, Richard Nixon, Golda Meir) and celebrities (Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Muhammad Ali).
The cover of Time was considered one of the last bastions of portrait painting in the American mainstream. The inclusion in the show of Chaliapin’s undated illustration Crime in the Streets, which depicts a murdered woman on an empty urban street, marks this end. That picture was never published, partly because the growing trend in journalism toward the end of Chaliapin’s career was to “use more photographs, less original art,” Barber says. “And for Time, they began publishing more covers that focused on issues, events, and topics—thus there were fewer portraits.”