In December 1964, a little over a year after one of America’s most beloved presidents was assassinated, Elaine de Kooning recounted painting John F. Kennedy in ARTnews. De Kooning (who had already written several articles for ARTnews, notably a few pieces about Abstract Expressionist painters like her husband, Willem de Kooning) described the lengthy process behind the final series of portraits. Though seemingly spontaneous, these paintings involved intense preparation. In honor of the National Portrait Gallery’s “Elaine de Kooning: Potraits” show, the full article is reprinted below.—Alex Greenberger
“Painting a Portrait of the President”
By Elaine de Kooning
In the winter of 1962–63, the artist traveled to Palm Beach to execute a portrait commission of President Kennedy, destined for the Truman Library, Independence, Mo. Challenged, Elaine de Kooning Presented herself in the task, producing a whole series of studies (six of which are reproduced on this page) and finished paintings (one of which is on the cover of this issue; three others are on view in the Massachusetts Pavilion of the New York World’s Fair.)
President Kennedy was off in the distance, about twenty yards away, talking to reporters, when I first saw him—and for one second, I didn’t recognize him. He was incandescent, golden. And bigger than life. Not that he was taller than the men standing around; he just seemed to be in a different dimension. Also not revealed by the newspaper image were his incredible eyes with large violet irises half veiled by the jutting bone beneath the eyebrows.
One of the reasons I was asked to do the portrait is that, with luck, I can start and finish a life-size portrait in one sitting (after a couple of preliminary sessions of sketches to determine the pose and familiarize myself with my impression of the sitter). After years of working on my portraits (mostly of friends) for months at a time, I found myself getting bogged down in overly conscientious effort and discovered that by working swiftly I could enter into an almost passive relationship to the canvas and get closer to the essential gesture of the sitter. However, working at top speed this way, I require the absolute immobility of the sitter. This was impossible with President Kennedy because of his extreme restlessness: he read papers, talked on the phone, jotted down notes, crossed and uncrossed his legs, shifted from one arm of the chair to another, always in action at rest. So I had to find a new approach.
I began with fragmentary sketches—first in charcoal, then in casein, sometimes just heads, sometimes the whole figure. For the first session (during a Medicare conference), I sat on top of a 6-foot ladder to get an unimpeded view of him. Concentrating on bone structure, most of my first sketches of him made him look twenty years younger. This was also because the positions he assumed were those of a college athlete. I made about thirty sketches at the first session and rushed back to a big studio that had been turned over to me by the Norton Gallery, made further drawing combining different aspects, and finally, after a couple days, decided on the proportions and size of the first canvas—4 by 8 feet.
In succeeding sessions of sketching, I was struck by the curious faceted structure of light over his face and hair—a quality of transparent ruddiness. This play of light contributed to the extraordinary variety of expressions. His smile and frown both seemed to be built-in to the bone. Everyone is familiar with the quick sense of humor revealed in the corners of his mouth and the laugh lines around the eyes, but what impressed me most was a sense of compassion.
Everyone has his own private idea of President Kennedy. The men who worked with him had one impression, his family another, the crowds who saw him campaigning another, the rest of the world, which saw him only in two dimensions, smiling or frowning on a flat sheet of paper or a TV screen, still another—and this last, by far the most universal. Beside my own intense, multiple impressions of him, I also had to contend with his “world image” created by the endless newspaper photographs, TV appearances, caricatures. Realizing this, I began to collect hundreds of photographs torn from newspapers and magazines and never missed an opportunity to draw him when he appeared on TV. These snapshots covered every angle, from above, below, profile, back, standing, sitting, walking, close-up, off in the distance. I particularly liked tiny shots where the features were indistinct yet unmistakable. Covering my walls with my own sketches and these photographs, I worked from canvas to canvas (the smallest 2 feet high, the largest, 11) always striving for a composite image.