The Joys & Jeopardies of Famous Portraits:
An Interview with Everett Raymond Kinstler
by Gordon Wetmore



Everett Kinstler has painted portraits of more celebrated figures—including five Presidents—than any other American. Mr. Whetmore, former chairman of the American Portrait Society interviewed the painter shortly after he received the Gold Medal of Achievement from the National Arts Club in New York.

GW: What have been the greatest challenges for you when painting famous people?

ERK: I guess to realize that they are human beings, and that the more well-known the person is to the public, the more impressions the public has. Consequently, everybody has an opinion as to how that person should look.

GW: What was your first assignment to paint a well-known person?

ERK: It was Scott Carpenter, one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts, the second to orbit Earth. I convinced him it would be important to wear the space suit when I painted him. Space suits in the Sixties were rubberized and fit as tightly as panty hose. When they wore it in the space program the suit was air conditioned; when he was posing, it was not. So I had to work very, very quickly.

GW: Describe some of your most challenging assignments in the theatrical world and the political arena.

ERK: Katharine Hepburn was challenging. I have enormous respect for her, but she was very opinionated, and I did say to her at one point when I got frustrated, “Miss Hepburn, I have the feeling that if I asked you to dance, you would lead.” Her reply was one she used often during the process: “Let’s get on with it.” There were times when I just had to stand my ground on certain things. Once when she proposed an idea for the portrait, she said, “What do you really think?” And without waiting for a minute (as I think I should have) I said, “I think that’s corny. I just have to be honest with you. I have enormous respect for you and it’s a great opportunity to paint you, but I have my own perspective and it’s very important for me and my own integrity that I continue with my concept.” When she liked something, she was very positive and appreciative. When the lithographs of her painting for the Players Club were finished, she was handed a red felt-tipped pen to sign them. She said, “I’m not going to sign with this. It takes away from the artist’s signature.”

On the other hand, with someone like James Cagney, before I started the painting I did a whole series of sketches because I wanted to use different aspects of him: what he thought of himself as a song and dance man, but also the great Cagney tough guy. So I tried to combine his “Yankee Doodle Dandy” image with his “Public Enemy” image. When we went through all the sketches, I said, “Well, don’t you have anything to say?” He just looked at me, winked and said, “You know, you’re my boy and anything you want to do is okay with me.”

GW: Almost all of your subjects would be people of great accomplishment, but many might be well known within their own fields and not generally known to the public. How different was the experience of working with such people as opposed to those whose names are household words?

ERK: I think a lot of those who are not known are far more interesting sometimes. It’s a question of your values. Who would I want to paint? I’m painting the very people I want to paint because they are always surprising. And that’s the great fun. They provide an arresting sense of what our strengths and weaknesses are.

In the case of well-knowns like Roy [Rogers] and Dale [Evans], but particularly with Cagney, Hepburn and Wayne, who were all painted by me between 1978 and 1980… these experiences took me back to my childhood and I was no longer approaching middle age—I was ten years old again and these people were bigger than life to me.

GW: Famous people have a certain aura about them and are accustomed to projecting a unique persona. How do you get beneath that to portray the real person?

ERK: One of the things I find when I paint people is that the aura of who they are sort of goes away when they’re in the studio. I’m so concerned with what I’m going to paint, how I’m going to interpret something, that it kind of fades. I know that when I was with John Wayne at one point (we were sitting in a luncheonette), and someone had told me he wore a toupeé, I was practically up his ear with my nose thinking, “I can’t see where it…” It was fantastic! I mean, I was right on top of him like a dentist! I couldn’t figure out where it began. And that’s really it. Each person is a challenge and interesting for their own reasons.

With someone like Tony Bennett, because we’re such close friends, that becomes something different, but as soon as you’re interpreting somebody who is well-known, particularly if a person is controversial, as a political person will be, then something else enters into it. A number of people may say negative things about the portrait, but they don’t mean it about the painting. It has to do with, “Oh, I don’t like that guy.” And it takes the portrait totally out of context. What I want to hear is, “Hey, that’s a good painting,” or “The hand is well done.” All they see is that face!

GW: Although one can always recognize your distinctive style, it seems that part of your interpretation of each subject is reflected in your aesthetic approach to the painting. For instance, John Wayne and Katharine Hepburn seem to be painted with a looser technique than Elizabeth Dole and some others.

ERK: It has to do with how I feel about the person. For instance, Tom Wolfe is colorful, flamboyant, theatrical. Wayne was a Westerner—out of doors. Miss Hepburn has always been a free spirit. And with someone like Mrs. Dole… Elizabeth Dole is a Southern lady. I’m not saying I achieve this, but I think it’s important to heed those wonderful lines of Benjamin West that whatever you are painting, whomever you are painting, keep in mind the essential character rather than the accidental appearance. I think that’s the danger of being a recipe painter. You can begin then to just let your personality and your style take over, and that’s not what makes an artist.

Kurt Waldheim, (Secretary General of the U.N.), was stiff. Totally precise and formal, and my portrait reflected that. I think it had to. Think of Sargent with the portrait of Edmond Booth. That’s a very introspective portrait, very controlled. It’s like a Velasquez. What you see in that is sorrow… and pain. I don’t think it takes much to imagine that this man’s younger brother assassinated the president. Because I think that’s right there in the painting. It’s a very reflective, moody, almost sad painting. Booth was one of the most famous actors of his day and this was 1886, so it was twenty years after the assassination. I think Sargent made a tremendous statement with that.

When I was illustrating, if I was doing things let’s say for children’s books, I moved my style to a much quieter mode than when I did the Zorro books, because the Zorro story was swashbuckling adventure. It isn’t that I changed my style. It’s like music. Monet thought in terms of music. When he painted those water lilies, they didn’t just sit in the water—I mean they moved! You got the feeling of it.

GW: Often you have painted more than one interpretation of your subject as in the case of Katharine Hepburn, President Ford and Elizabeth Dole among others. How do you keep a fresh approach with each canvas?

ERK: When I painted Liv Ullmann, I made two paintings, one watercolor, and two portrait drawings of her… I filled a sketch book. So, as I see it, it’s this: With a John Wayne, he was basically focused, as I saw him, as a Westerner. With Liv Ullman, here was an actress of many, many moods—tragedy, comedy—a great beauty. An inner beauty. I never tired of drawing her. And with the others, there was always a different facet.

GW: How did your drawing of Ayn Rand come about?

ERK: I was a great admirer of hers, and it was at an evening at the National Arts Club. The occasion was to honor Eleanor Roosevelt. When Mrs. Roosevelt was given a standing ovation, Miss Rand refused to stand—you never knew what she was going to do. She was interested in the fact that I was an artist and that I was an admirer of hers. She came up to the studio afterward with her husband Frank O’Connor. I had a copy of Atlas Shrugged and she was very impressed with my underlinings. My first wife was there and while the four of us talked, I did a very modest head of her in charcoal. It is not a significant drawing, but the evening was memorable.

GW: I can imagine the conversation that night.

ERK: I was much younger then and in certain ways I was more innocent. I was testier and I remember disagreeing with her on certain things. She had a steel trap mind. I found her to be more Russian than American. Even masculine… very severe hairdo, uncompromising—which is not a negative thing. She was just saying that anything can be willed, that the mind can do anything. I remember saying, “Miss Rand, I’m not a religious person, but there is a God-given talent.” And she rejected that immediately, saying that the mind can do anything. She was an extraordinary woman with an almost frightening kind of mind. I enjoyed her, but she was very confrontational. She was very intense. What attracted me to her was The Fountainhead, a remarkably romantic book which depicted the artist as an individual. I was just very impressed with her.

GW: You are known as a portrait artist, but I know you enjoy painting many things. I have seen landscapes, interiors, and figure studies by you. How does this fit into the picture with portrait painting?

ERK: Whatever my weaknesses or my strengths, I feel very passionately that it has been the painting from life, the painting of the landscapes and trying to understand color, that has helped me. You’ve only to look at Sargent to realize how important that is. Look to his watercolors. That’s really where he’s coming from. So, as an artist you are trying to challenge yourself, enlarge yourself. Otherwise you become a mannerist. When I painted John Wayne, the fact that I have painted hundreds of illustrations and many landscapes out of doors meant that I could feel the violet shadows and I could see the reflections. You can’t get that from a photograph! When you do use photography, the camera records and the painter selects. Then you look at the photograph and the painting next to it and the painting is by someone like Sargent, what a difference! A dramatic phrase for it is that it brings life to life. In a way, the best thing that could have happened to painting was that the camera came in—because it made people realize after awhile that there was something missing. You’ve got to feel it! People like Remington were outdoors painting, and that’s why there’s not a Western painter as good as Remington. All those men whom I knew—Flagg, Dumond, Johanson—they were working from life.

GW: What kind of painting do you do for your own pleasure?

ERK: Well, again it’s the landscapes, the watercolors. I love to draw. Portugal was a great spot for me. It brought me very close to Sorolla. Because I saw the color that he painted. It’s very similar to Spain. Where I was in Southern Portugal, there was the same kind of color, the same kind of light that he must have seen at the beaches.

GW: Do you get many chances to paint like that these days?

ERK: Not enough—because things come up that are exciting to me. Not for commercial reasons, and I can’t stress that enough… but challenges come up and I feel that this is a moment in history. The opportunity to paint Lady Bird Johnson at 84, Betty Ford at 80. I’m not about to say, “I’m going to go out and paint a landscape instead.”

GW: I know that you started out as an illustrator and cartoonist. How was that segment of your career helpful in your transition into portrait painting and the other work you do now.

ERK: It was wonderful training because I did work from life a lot. It made me work quickly to try and seize what I thought were essentials to tell a story. I still look at it that way—for the gesture, for what’s most expressive. And in this profession you have to think fast on your feet. There is always the problem when you don’t have time. There are a lot of people around and you’re supposed to be working… you’re supposed to perform and there’s not much sensitivity… or awareness, maybe, of what you need to concentrate. So when things come at you, you have to be ready to adapt. That’s why having spent so much time drawing and illustrating and working from life has been a savior for me—because so many things have not worked out as I had expected. When I went to the White House to see President Clinton I had my camera with me and they said, “No cameras.” It was the best thing that could have happened to me. I worked for two and a half hours doing nothing but sketches and it was far more valuable than just taking a couple of snapshots.

GW: What special arrangements might you have to make for high-profile people?

ERK: In the case of George Schultz (when he was Secretary of State), the Secret Service was here for three days before he came—and the day he came they had police dogs, they cordoned off the block, they looked under the cars for bombs—because there was a threat from Khadafi, I think.

One of the problems I had with some of those people who were, let’s say, Secretary of the Army, Secretary of State, or Secretary of Defense was that I had to plead with the subject not to have security people right here in the studio—because I found it very inhibiting. However, I never had a case, including with Presidents Reagan and Ford, where it didn’t work out.

With the Miss Americas I just had to work in the presence of the chaperones who were with them all the time. In one of the Southern states there were three chaperones. I thought, “My reputation must be getting terrific!” I was very flattered!

GW: What is the funniest thing that has happened when you’ve been working on one of these assignments?

ERK: I was painting the Secretary of the Treasury and it was at the presentation. I bent over and my trousers split from the crotch right up to the waistline. Mrs. Blumenthal said to me, “What was that!?” Fortunately my jacket was long enough to cover it completely, and I just passed it off and proceeded with the ceremony. I told her later, though.

When I was posing Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, he kept standing to her right side and when I asked him he said, “Well, it does read ‘Roy and Dale’.” Now that’s show biz!

GW: Recently you received the Gold Medal Award at the 99th Annual Artist Award Dinner at the National Arts Club in New York. Previous recipients have included your great mentor, John Johansen (who had been a student of Sargent’s), as well as Thomas Hart Benton. It also has been presented to artists such as Red Groomes and even Christo. Not to mention Eleanor Roosevelt, I.M. Pei, and Buckminster Fuller. This is a very diverse group. Salvador Dali received the award.

ERK: I was there for Dali. He brought his pet ocelot to the dinner. He came to the studio and I did a drawing of him. He never smiled—it was part of his persona—and he said to me, “All le great artists (he used the French ‘le’ instead of ‘the’) receive le message from other spirits.” I said, “Really?” He said, referring to his mustache, “Le Dali’s antenna receives le message from above.” You have to understand. In those days I was really much more irreverent, so I said, “Well, I guess Michelangelo was better than you.” And he said, “Better than Dali? Le Dali has le mustache!” And I said, “Yes, Maestro, but Michelangelo had mustache and beard—more message!” He really didn’t think that was funny at all. He had no humor. His role was to be outrageous—but he was a brilliant draftsman. There’s no question about that.

Seriously, the award was a great honor. There were four hundred people there, and it went without a hitch. Tom Wolfe spoke for me at the dinner and Scott Carpenter wrote a very touching message because he couldn’t come. He referred to our 35 years of friendship. Ford also sent a very lovely message for the dinner, which was unexpected, but, again, I was enormously pleased. It was very moving. It meant a great deal to me.

GW: You have become friends with many of your subjects. You have mentioned Tony Bennett, Tom Wolfe, Liv Ullmann, and others. Can you tell us about Scott Carpenter and Gerald Ford?

ERK: Well, Scott Carpenter and I hit it off, I guess because I admired his values, as I did Ford’s. Scott was very much an artist in his own way. He writes. He’s a poet. He had a tremendous curiosity about what I did—and both he and Ford, in different ways, had a heartfelt appreciation for what I was attempting to do.

GW: As did Sir Joshua Reynolds, John Singleton Copely and John Singer Sargent in their time, you have probably painted more famous people than any living artist. What effect would you say this has had on your art career and your personal life?

ERK: I don’t think it’s affected me one way or the other. I enjoy the stimulus of painting people. In the case of painting people like a President or a Secretary of State, that to me is very simply a moment in history. I remember when I was commissioned to paint Richard Nixon. I was going up to Connecticut, and we were having dinner with [historian] Theodore H. White. And Teddy White was no admirer of Nixon. He said, “Who are you working on?” And I said, “Teddy, I’ve just been commissioned to paint Richard Nixon.” He just looked at me and he said, “Ev, it’s a moment in history.” That’s what it is, and that to me is a totally different feeling. I have thought, “All of these people are a part of American history.” And that’s what stimulates me. But the idea of painting someone who’s a celebrity alone does not. There have been opportunities to paint certain people and I didn’t care for them. What I knew about them I didn’t like, so I said, “I’m really not interested.”

GW: What have been your greatest joys when painting famous people?

ERK: The greatest stimulus has been when it’s obviously a moment in history, as in the case of a President of the United States. It’s a great thrill. To paint somebody who is well-known and after you’ve gotten to know them, find that you really admire them, is a great joy. Someone you admired the way I did Cagney, and then to get to paint him! I mean, I thought of Cagney as a hero! I would have loved to have painted Joe Di Maggio because I grew up watching him and he was a genuine hero. As old Flagg said to me once, “If you paint famous people, you find sometimes that the halo hangs over one ear.”

GW: What have been the greatest jeopardies?

ERK: Well, when you’re doing a landscape, you’ve done it for yourself and you’ve had the joy of doing it. If someone likes it and buys it, that’s terrific. With a portrait, your frame of reference can be very debilitating. You have a product and a predetermined size. You say, “Gee, I would like to do something bigger, I would like to do something smaller…” And then it has to be approved on a level that is not artistic. I’ve often asked myself, “How in the hell have I survived all these years?” I tell you with absolute honesty that every time I have a client coming I go down the elevator, I walk down that hallway from 19th Street to 20th, and I think, “Kinstler, how many times have you gone through this? 100? 200? 300? What are we in for today?” It’s never predictable.

Gordon Wetmore’s paintings are in collections around the globe. His subjects have included Princess Grace, President Richard M. Nixon, Jack Nicklaus, Dr. Norman Vincent Peale and Leon Uris.

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