Artist Elaine de Kooning, known for her contemporary, gestural portraits, was chosen in 1962 to create a portrait of President Kennedy for the Truman Library. She had seven informal sessions in Palm Beach, Florida, with Kennedy at the end of December 1962 and early January 1963. The images capture Kennedy’s restless energy, and colors evoke a coolness and detachment not always obvious to his admirers.
De Kooning characteristically immersed herself in the project, turning out hundreds of drawings and 23 finished canvases in her attempt to capture the President's restless energy. Because Kennedy had no time for formal sittings, de Kooning climbed a stepladder toting her charcoal, pencils and pad for a better view of Kennedy, who fidgeted constantly as he conferred with aides. Caroline Kennedy, a toddler, painted beside de Kooning while sitting on the floor. After Kennedy's assassination on November 22, 1963, she stopped painting for almost a year.
In Elaine de Kooning: The Spirit of Abstract Expressionism, Selected Writings, she tells the story of drawing President Kennedy in her own words:
"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 not the grey, sculptural newspaper image. 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."
"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 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 conscious 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 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 the other, always in action at rest."
See related post: The Kennedys | Art in Camelot