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
What have been the greatest challenges for you when painting
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.
What was your first assignment to paint a well-known person?
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.
Describe some of your most challenging assignments in the
theatrical world and the political arena.
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
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.”
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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!
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
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
How did your drawing of Ayn Rand come about?
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.
I can imagine the conversation that night.
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.
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?
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.
What kind of painting do you do for your own pleasure?
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
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
Do you get many chances to paint like that these days?
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.”
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.
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
What special arrangements might you have to make for
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.
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
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
What is the funniest thing that has happened when you’ve
been working on one of these assignments?
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.
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!
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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
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.”
What have been your greatest joys when painting famous
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.”
What have been the greatest jeopardies?
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
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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