Portrait of an Artist

Renowned Portrait Artist Kinstler Recounts Career in ‘My Brush With History’

Posted June 6, 2005 at 5:08pm

Everett Raymond Kinstler arrives in a huff, which is understandable since the septuagenarian painter has just hiked down 11 flights of stairs. The elevator in Gramercy Park’s National Arts Club, where he has a studio, apparently isn’t working, and he’s a little put out.

He heads into the club’s elegant Victorian parlor, where an Elle magazine photo shoot is setting up, and sinks into a chair to catch his breath.

Everywhere you look in the club, the walls are dotted with Kinstler originals. His renderings of jazzman Dave Brubeck and musician Leonard Bernstein line the club’s portrait gallery of honored artists. A large three-quarter length of the club’s bow-tie-wearing president, Aldon James, who soon appears in the flesh to greet Kinstler, hangs in the entryway.

And so it should be.

For much of the past half century, Kinstler, who has probably painted more political figures than any other living artist, has been the man to see if you are in the market to have your portrait done. Besides

the countless government officials — including presidents, Cabinet secretaries and Members of Congress — his oeuvre includes a remarkable stable of captains of industry, socialites and movie stars, including John Wayne and Katharine Hepburn.

After more than 60 years of earning a living with his brush, Kinstler is taking an artistic and literary walk down memory lane, so to speak, releasing “My Brush With History,” a coffee table-sized book featuring his paintings and the stories behind the paintings of everyone from Donald Rumsfeld to Bill Clinton to Dr. Seuss. (Earlier this year, PBS began airing a documentary on Kinstler’s life and work.)

“This really is the career, I guess I would say,” says Kinstler a few minutes later, now comfortably seated on the well-worn, rusty-orange sofa in his studio (the elevator was moving again by the time of the return trip). “The hardest part … was what to leave out.”

Painting Politicians

When it comes to capturing official Washington, Kinstler, a silvery haired man with thick, dark brows and a piercing gaze, waxes philosophic. “Each of the people I’ve painted in government to me is a moment in history,” he says.

That said, it’s important to keep some perspective. “So many of the people at the time I painted them were so well known, so well known you would have never heard of them,” he asserts, pointing to Earl Butz, an erstwhile secretary of Agriculture under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford whose resignation after telling a racist joke “was front-page news,” but now “no one remembers him.”

“I knew people who’ve said, ‘Gerald Ford, was he a Senator?’” Kinstler adds.

When Kinstler received his first Washington commissions in the late 1960s, he was dismayed to find nearly all political portraiture done from photographs. “Photographers had an in with the government and what they were basically saying was: You don’t have to pose,” he recalls. “I was not honestly trying to be different, but I said if someone doesn’t want to pose I don’t want to do it. … And I needed the work.”

He remembers the inaugural two official government portraits fondly, but mostly, it seems, because they enabled what he calls “My best pun.”

The first was of President Lyndon Johnson’s Transportation Secretary Alan Boyd, the second of former Labor Secretary Willard Wirtz.

“I went from Boyd to Wirtz,” Kinstler laughs.

When Kinstler relayed the jape to Lady Bird Johnson, whom he has also painted, she said, “That’s the worse pun I ever heard,” he recalls.

Kinstler would go on to paint five of the last seven presidents since Nixon — including the official White House portraits of Ford and Ronald Reagan. In all, he’s done 10 portraits of Ford (with whom he still keeps in touch) for various venues, not to mention nearly the entire Cabinet of the 38th president. Portraits of former Sens. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and David Boren (D-Okla.), as well as ex-Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, are currently under way. And although he’s booked two years ahead of time, if the current President Bush should come a calling he’d clear his schedule in a flash.

“If some freak [thing] happened and suddenly the president of the United States wanted a portrait I would drop everything,” he says.

In painting, as in politics, connections are key, says Kinstler. At the presentation of a portrait of former Commerce Secretary Frederick Dent, Kinstler met “a very attractive woman whose hair was turning gray” — she turned out to be Barbara Bush. (Years later, he would paint her husband, President George H.W. Bush, for the Yale Club.) At the same unveiling, he also encountered “the most striking, handsome man I’ve ever met,” former Interior and Commerce Secretary Rogers C.B. Morton, whose portrait he would also paint.

Kinstler, who in his book describes himself as an artist “who also paints portraits,” says he now wants to devote more time to personal paintings, such as landscapes and interiors, and to capturing the people who make up “the gut of this country.”

Later this month, for instance, Donald Trump will pose for him. “If he’s any good [as a model], I’ll say, ‘You’re hired!’” Kinstler says with a wink.

Getting to Know You

Aside from his obvious artistic acumen, one reason Kinstler is so sought after (and so effective) as a portraitist, say friends and associates, is his personality. Kinstler, simply put, is eminently lovable.

He’s a kisser, for one thing — peppering the faces and hands of those he meets with scattershot busses.

He’s also a talker. “It takes me half an hour to say hello,” he cheerfully confesses. It’s a trait he shares with another famous portraitist, the 18th- and early-19th century American painter Gilbert Stuart, whose image of George Washington adorns the dollar bill. “He studied with me, where do you think he got it,” Kinstler jokes. But on a more serious note, he adds, “I talk constantly because it keeps the face animated, and also I’m genuinely interested in the people I paint.”

“The sittings are the most effective form of therapy I can imagine,” says art historian Charles Scribner, a former subject who remembers “feeling on top of the world” when Kinstler was painting him.

Scribner, a scion of the famous publishing family, says Kinstler’s portraits merit the 17th century’s “highest” form of artistic praise — that the artist had produced a “speaking likeness.”

“That’s what Ray conveys. … His portraits have a narrative quality,” he says.

“What Ray does is … what [Alfred] Hitchcock used to do with the MacGuffin. Before he started, he’d find a hook,” observes Amy Henderson, a historian at the National Portrait Gallery, which holds roughly 75 Kinstler works. “I’m sure Ray does that for the people he paints.”

Kinstler’s highly expressive portraits manage to be flattering without crossing over into idealization, Scribner asserts. “He draws out through his conversation and relationship with the subjects their nicest qualities.”

“He makes you look good. He makes you look better than you are,” agrees ex-Rep. and former Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bud Shuster (R-Pa.), who selected Kinstler to paint his official committee portrait on the recommendation of National Portrait Gallery officials. “At least with me he made a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”

Artistic Milieu

Kinstler delights in sharing historical tidbits about his haunts. The National Arts Club, he notes proudly, is located in 19th-century Democratic presidential candidate and New York Gov. Samuel Tilden’s former mansion, which, by the way, is down the street from the childhood home of President Theodore Roosevelt, who was once a member of the arts club. Next door to the club is the equally storied Players Club, where Kinstler is chairman of the art committee. This club is located in the home of its founder, actor Edwin Booth, brother of Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth. Just a few blocks away, Stanford White, one of the architects of the Players Club, was shot to death by the cuckolded husband of a woman with whom White was having an affair. “Interesting neighborhood, right?” Kinstler chuckles.

Kinstler, who left high school at age 16, got his start drawing comic books and “cowboys and cleavage” for 1940s pulp magazines. (A book on his early years in illustration is due for release next month.) He studied at the Art Students League in New York and later became a protégé of James Montgomery Flagg, the creator of the “I WANT YOU” Uncle Sam recruiting poster. At 22, Kinstler introduced the Zorro comic books. But as the 1950s “drew to a close,” he writes in his book, and pulps and other publications that published original art work fell on hard times, he transitioned to portraiture.

For the past 50-some years, Kinstler has worked out of a 10th-floor studio, with a direct line on the Chrysler Building, located in an addition to the Tilden mansion. (He splits his time between these National Arts Club digs, which include living quarters, and a home and studio in Easton, Conn., which he shares with his wife, Peggy.)

Entering Kinstler’s Manhattan studio is akin to being admitted to an artistic Secret Garden. The walls are dotted with his works — a quirky nude (sporting glasses), a near perfect painting of his two daughters in bed on a lazy, sunny morning and reproductions of some of his portraits of luminaries such as Hepburn and his friend, writer Tom Wolfe.

About a half dozen portraits — including those of a former college president, a Supreme Court philanthropist and a rector — in various stages of completion stand on easels or lean up against each other. A fireplace mantle is crowded with photos of Kinstler and some of his famous subjects like James Cagney and his former high school classmate Tony Bennett (one of his closest friends). A rifle hangs from the fireplace, “a prop” from “my illustration days,” Kinstler explains.

In a corner of the room sits his constant companion, “Miss Draper,” an early 20th century-era mannequin. He acquired the leopard-print-wearing brunette earlier this year from the estate of his longtime friend, the late American portraitist Bill Draper.

Kinstler laughs recalling the day he went to fetch her and ended up carrying the dummy down Park Avenue, an effort which was proceeding just swimmingly until her head fell off and started rolling down the street. “It was a very funny image to people looking at it.

“I have a feeling she knows a lot of things,” Kinstler confides playfully. “Every once in a while I lean over and ask her, ‘Now Miss Draper, what did Bill say about this?’”

Kinstler, who paints with John Singer Sargent’s palette (an original Sargent charcoal hangs not far from one easel for inspiration) and is frequently compared to the legendary 19th- and early 20th-century American portraitist, starts his days early. He’s usually up by 6 a.m. and has his first sitting with a “victim” by 9:30 a.m. “I find that two and a half hours is about all you can ask a person to take,” he says. Daylight is his “mistress” — he prefers to work in natural north light.

A typical portrait takes about 80 hours to complete, although some have taken substantially longer to come to fruition. For instance, Kinstler quips that the late Sen. Russell Long’s (D-La.) portrait “took 20 years and a weekend” to finish — if you count from the time Long’s wife, Carolyn, first arranged a meeting — since Long had pledged not to sit for the artist until after he left the Senate.

At 78, Kinstler is at a juncture in his life when “a sense of history” is assuming a greater presence. An avid correspondent who addresses envelopes each night before bed, then breaks during the day to write the letters, Kinstler counts some 700 missives “from people like Hepburn, Cagney, John Wayne” in his collection (these will eventually go to Boston University, along with his photographs and other papers). He laments the loss of the art of letter-writing. “It’s so sad, it’s so sad, it’s so sad,” he says in progressively fainter tones. “The fax machine has destroyed a lot of it because you don’t have the person’s actual touch on it.”

When a clock chimes three o’clock a few minutes later, it’s time for him to get back to work. He has a presentation to get in order — in a few hours he’s due to give a lecture at a private New York club (the sort that doesn’t like seeing its name in newspapers). Later, the group of well-heeled Manhattanites will clamor for the self-described “high school dropout” to sign copies of his book. They will murmur appreciatively whenever Kinstler portraits of members and associates of the club are projected on an overhead screen — accompanied by the artist’s puckish anecdotes.

“I forget names and where I was last week, but I can remember something about everybody that I’ve painted,” Kinstler says. “They are much more important in my life than I in theirs.”

This may not be entirely accurate.

Not long after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a priest visited Scribner in his apartment, the former home of ex-New York City Mayor John Lindsay, and asked him what, if anything, he would save in the event of a fire.

“That’s easy, I’d save the Kinstler,” Scribner recalls telling the priest. Now that he’s been immortalized by Kinstler’s brush, he adds, “it’s less important for me to survive.”