Privilege Blog

How Does It Feel To Share A Family Portraitist With The Kennedys?

Back in the 60’s, my mother had a portrait painted of her children. The three eldest, that is. I was 6, my sister 3, my brother 2. The painter tried several times to cover up my brother’s diaper, but couldn’t. The diaper stayed, my arm got tired, and my sister and now I fall about laughing about how, well, piggie she looked. She no longer looks one bit porcine, but she’s captured forever as, um, piggie.

The eldest three children in the Privilege family of origin. c. 1962.

Family portraits play an storied role in High WASP families. Especially since we didn’t have cameras back when. Local talent included Gilbert Stuart, 1755-1828, who painted many notable early Americans. The Age of Innocence relied on John Singer Sargent, 1856-1925. My father believes the Privilege family portrait was modeled on this.

The Daughters of Edward Darly Boit, 1882. Who subsequently lived fairly difficult lives.

Singer, unfortunately, was not available to paint for us. However a man named Aaron Shikler was. As is often true in lives of privilege, we, wholly without intent, bumped into someone who then bumped into someone else extraordinary. Five years later, Shikler was to paint this.

Jacqueline Kennedy and her two children, 1967.

And in 1970, at Jackie’s request, he painted this from a photo. Post-mortem.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 1970.

Which now hangs in the White House as JFK’s official portrait.

What do I think about having our family share a portrait painter with the Kennedys? The same thing I think about other things we share with them. My father went to Harvard, some years before Jack. My mom played softball at the Kennedy Cape Cod compound. It feels cool, as though some of their import rubbed off on us. Even though it didn’t. Privilege sometimes lands you in the vicinity of special. You get a better view, not necessarily a place on the playing field. Oh, and apparently Teddy cheated.

Why paint a family portrait, even without Presidential connection? Beyond status or privilege or simple representation? In the era of digital photography, which has led to a proliferation of images unseen since the Russians stopped iconifying saints? Recently Materfamilias wrote very movingly about the portrait she found from her youth. The degree to which the drawing of her young face reminded her she had been more beautiful than she knew. The Privilege family painting, on the other hand, provokes not one whit of profound feeling in its subjects. We fall about laughing. I think there’s a place for both reactions.

I imagine, as I write, that our parents feel something more. Portraits show intent. You “sit” for them, over several weeks at least. No wonder I complained my arm hurt. However, the intention itself is open to interpretation. All one can say for sure is, “Yes, we did that on purpose.”

Oddly, my siblings and I find most meaning in Shikler’s painterly habit of getting things wrong. I do not have now, and did not have then, hair like a wild animal. In this painting I always will. Portraits create distortions of reality that become part of the told history. Which is, I suppose, as good a definition of art as any.

Decades later, Mom checked to see if Shikler would paint my youngest sister too. But his services now run dear. Presidential commissions will do that to a fellow. So Mom had a lovely charcoal sketch done. Which looks just like my sister. Beautiful. It hangs in Mom’s bedroom, as do piggies, diapers, and fierce hair.

Shikler himself continues to get better, as a painter. Capturing exhaustion and pre-teens pretty darn well.

Mother and Daughter, 2005

If your family fortune is intact or (thank goodness) on the increase, there could be worse ways to invest your time and money. And maybe one of your children will, in fact, become President.

Family collection
The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit via PBS
Jackie and children via Artnet
JFK via The White House Historical Association
Mother and Daughter via Davis & Langdale

40 Responses

  1. Oh, the second I saw that glorious portrait I was going to write you that it must have been based on Singer Sargent's painting. Your painting is a treasure–utterly beautiful!

  2. p.s. That SS painting is on the cover of my Henry James novel "What Maisie Knew." If you were the three-year old in the portrait, I'd christen your painting "What Privilege Knew." She does look so very knowing . . . :-)

  3. Thoroughly enjoyed this post.
    All these portraits tell stories and "hearing" excerpts through one of the sitters' voice was really special!
    Thank you!!!

  4. I knew the instant I saw your portrait, that the artist had a Sargent-ish (Sargentian?) infuence! I love that painting and see it every time I visit the MFA.

    Luckily piggies, diapers, and fierce hair turned out just fine, not so, the poor Boits.

  5. I have no idea what it feels like to share a portraitist with the Kennedys…then again, I have no idea what it feels like to have a portraitist.

    I love yours, though! I can't even imagine getting three kids to sit still long enough to paint their portraits, much less all together, and posed too boot.

  6. Wow! Not only is the protrait beautiful, it's very cool that the same artist captured the former first family. his style is very unique and I believe that is why Jackie chose him.

  7. Yes, I thought of Sargent immediately. How special for your family to have not only such a beautifully painted portrait, but one that invokes a Sargent masterpiece.
    I had my wonderful doberman pinscher painted by a famous animal portraitist, now I deeply regret not having my children painted instead.

  8. If I had any role at all, as you suggested in your comment on my blog the other day, in inspiring this post of yours, I'm very pleased — it's a wonderful post with intriguing connections between these various portraits.
    As for our varying responses, I'd add that beyond a delayed recognition of my young self's looks, I'm also bemused by my portrait's divergence from how I usually presented myself to the world, hair and glasses-wise. And even in the distance between my retrospective acknowledgement of a beauty I couldn't see at the time and your own LMAO response, we're united in feeling quite alienated from an image that claims to represent us, if from a distance of time. I don't know that a photograph from the same time could elicit a similar reaction.

  9. How absolutely fascinating Lisa!!!!!!

    I am unsurprised that your Mum revealed that Teddy cheated at softball at the Kennedy Compound. My favourite line about him is that he had all the charm of 500 pounds of condemned veal.

    Must get mum to pull out the old portraits of us as kids.

  10. how cool is that! I remember portraits at disney world. where we all looked the same. but I did like the disney world-stamp in the bottom corner of the portrait.

  11. What a great post! I am fascinated by portraits, by how the best portraitists can't resist adding what they "see" to what is physically there. Fierce hair comes to mind!

  12. I love to look at portraits – yours is sweet and charming. My mother was a professional painter – she did my portrait just as my blond hair turned brown. I hated it! It hung on the wall for a little while, but I banished it to a storage closet- and lost track. I've regained the blond hair, but I'm afraid the painting is gone for good – it was beautiful and I was so silly. Her dear friend (all of her friends were artists) insisted on painting my children when they were very young and while it was a hassle at the time, I'm grateful that I have that moment uniquely captured.

  13. Miss J adores the idea of the family portrait. Hers couldn't afford anything but Sears photography. The ones shown here are stunning.

  14. When I was 12, my mother hired a Swedish woman who did canded black-and-white photographic portraits of children. I don't know what happened to most of the pictures, but the last remaining two were chucked a few months ago.

  15. Miss Cavendish – I like that. What Privilege Knew. My father is obviously a big Henry James fan.

    Anna Mavromatis – You are welcome. You, as an artist, bring a perspective I hadn't even considered. Thank you for that.

    Patsy – You crack me up. Every. Time.

    Jan – I do not know how they got us to sit still. But I know I complained like crazy.

    Princess – Thank you. I think his style has really grown.

    Belle – At least your dog doesn't make fun of the painting as we do:).

  16. Mater – Absolutely. I agree that alienation is a huge part of portraits. And in the gap of alienation maybe there's more room for thought.

    FF – Glad you enjoyed it. Teddy did a lot, but there were clearly some fundamental issues.

    Paula – :). If I could do a Mickey Mouse icon for you I would.

    Town – Maybe Shikler did put the hair there to convey my high verbal personality:).

    Gourmetmom – Of course you hated it as a teen and of course you would love it now. Isn't that how it works, with mothers? I wonder, was having her paint you more or less annoying than it would have been with another artist…

  17. Absolutely Sargent-esque! A lovely painting. I love it… captures the personalities so well and that is what truly makes a great portrait. I do like the one of you as a preteen as well. I can see the angst in you!

  18. The list of High WASP portraitists runs from Rembrandt Peale and John Wesley Jarvis through Sargent and his contemporaries and more or less dead-ends with Elizabeth Shoumatoff. (The British got to eke things out a bit longer with Lucien Freud before he became to grand to accept commissions.)

    Your own reservations notwithstanding, I much prefer the portrait of the young Privileges to that of Jackie and her children. The three of you seem much more vital, and much less posed (your weary arm notwithstanding).

  19. How marvelous it is that you were painted so delightfully by Aaron Schickler, when you were so young. I actually think his technique has suffered over the years, declining from when he painted you. Yours is, I believe and as Anon 6:50 writes, better than the one of JBKO and her children. I once spent an evening in the Kennedy compound in Hyannis where Teddy was too much in evidence at his most bloated and drunken, stumbling about and sloshing his go cups full of booze. Quite a vivid memory I might add. Our portraits–of me and my siblings–were done in the 1960s by a lady pastel artist, and once hung four in a row in our dining room. I haven't a clue what became of mine, wearing a red turtle neck of all things (circa 1967 after all). but I'd love to have it today, for sure.

  20. I love your Shikler portrait. Very foresighted of your parents. I for one, find his work for the Kennedys perfect-it has that ghostly quality-as if it were indeed a Camelot. Your portrait is lively,even now it seems of the moment. I have a friend that collected Shikler and gave me a profile watercolor pastel of his model-who I think was a wife or sister. I have a catalog of some of his other work if you want some scans. I will send you a copy of mine or post it with a link to your own great one here. (I only wish mine were a portrait-the resemblance is only in the skin and my constant blush in youth.)

  21. I so enjoyed this post! I particularly loved the line:"Portraits create distortions of reality that become part of the told history." So true! Often, it is this truth that has defined the historical importance, I think, of the portraiture art form.

    Along with capturing a perceived "moment in the life" of the painted subjects, the portrait stands as a reminder or emblem of what one (or one's family) stood for (i.e., their financial success, lineage, etc.).

    Thanks for sharing and for offering us a marvelous seat into the art form.



  22. hi lpc,

    what a great post and beautiful portrait. anyone whoever challenges your "privilege" again can just go, well you know.

    i have a portrait of my maternal grandmother that was painted in the early 1920's that i just love. i can stare at it for hours examining her hands, neck, eyes, etc. searching for clues of me in the image. portraits are wonderful.

    thank you for sharing yours.


  23. Those are lovely pictures. {All of them, but I meant the one owned by your family}. I imagine your mother loves to look at it and remember how all of you were during those days. Ah, Teddy. Yes, we definitely have a relative or two who could speak to that….and other activities…

  24. spectacular post. your family portrait is beautiful. i love it. unfortunately, no portraits were ever painted of me and my sister as children. my father rebelled against his life of privilege. he kept us out of private school, the country club, and various social clubs. by no means am i ungrateful, we lived a good life, but sometimes i wish i had gone to private school and been a member of various clubs. thanks for sharing and take care.

  25. Lisa…
    how fortunate that your family had the foresight and wisdom to employ the services of such a talented artist. Photos fade but oils remain…

    I say with all respect, that you look like you are "bossing around" your sister…or are you pointing at something?
    It could be family dynamics captured for all time!

    Who are the subject in Mother and daughter 2005?

    It doesn't surprise me at all that Teddy Kennedy cheated…they were a driven and competitive group of children…I suppose that is why they were so accomplished later in life.

    I'd love to see those former oils that hang in your dining room…

    have a great weekend!

  26. Where have I been, you posted this already on Tuesday, and now as Friday is turning towards the eve, I see it first time!
    A real treasure, this painting of yours. And a funny one too with the diapers and all !!

  27. Lovely post,and its good to follow that your painter improved highly at his art thru the years :))

  28. This post is probably one of my favorites of yours. My Mother never did a portrait of my brother and I, but my Grandpapa and Grandmama did of my Dad and his only sibling my aunt. My aunt has two incredible portraits of my cousins each at the same place at their home in Charlotte. They are gorgeous. I am considering someone maybe doing one based off of a photo for me to give my parents, as we have so many good pictures of my brother and I growing up.

  29. My mother has a portrait of an antebellum ancestor hanging in her dressing room. We refer to her as "The Hag."

    I was never a fan of the John Kennedy portrait until I saw it in person. I don't think it reproduces well, but it's quite subtle and moving.

  30. LPC, your hair does not look wild! What a gorgeous painting. I love this story. The references to Teddy and "clearly there were issues" really cracked me up. And I love both John Sargent and Henry James. Stuart too.

  31. I have always so admired portrait artists; that they capture a certain essence and personality of the sitter.

    Wonderful story as well!

    I have a New Giveaway from the French Basketeer that I think you will love!

    Art by Karena

  32. I did a very touristy thing and sat for a charcoal sketch on the banks of the Seine and overheard the artist telling someone who asked how he does it better than the other artists who were doing it (there were more people waiting in line as he was doing his sketch of me). He said, "I just make sure I see the beauty in my subjects and capture that." :)

  33. Miss Janey – I think Sears photography is an entire system of folk art.

    Deja- I'm curious about the motives for throwing them out.

    EM – Oh, the preteen isn't me! Luckily:).

    Anon – Thank you so much for adding this information to the dialogue. I swear you sound just like my father. Dad? Is that you? This is a compliment, BTW, my father is very articulate and learned:).

    Reggie – I am happy to know you find our portrait to be an example of good technique. How interesting. And I'm dying to see your red turtle neck pastel.

  34. Little augury – I would love to see a catalog – up on your blog or I can post here. I like the of Jack very much, myself, the bowed head and all.

    Jessica – Thank you. And for the additional intelligent analysis of portraiture.

    Janet – Thank you very much. Maybe some day you will post the portrait of your grandmother.

    The Cape House – Ah yes, Teddy. I do admire the family though, even so.

    Kiki – My father also kept us from the country club. They excluded African Americans and Jews, so we didn't join. Good for him, good for your father. Private schools, on the other hand, that's a tougher repudiation of privilege, IMO.

  35. hostess – Ha! I am sure I was TRYING to boss my sister around, although the painter just made me point. I didn't even know why. Luckily my sister is quite capable of withstanding any of my bossing attempts. The oils in Dad's dining room are very interesting, I agree, just from a historical perspective if nothing else.

    Mette – I really posted it Thursday. Just a Blogger thing. Thank you:).

    Turquoise – Thank you very much.

    Worthington – I think your parents would love a portrait of you and your brother. There was an article online that I couldn't find again that mentioned good portraitists. Some of the paintings were quite beautiful.

    Genteel- Ha! How these things become part of family legend.

  36. Bella – Thank you so much.

    Susan – Glad you like the painting. Look more closely at the hair. It's getting ready to run right across the veldt:).

    Karena – Thank you. I appreciate the perspective of artists. And I will go sign up for your giveaway.

    Buckeroo – :) indeed.

  37. Interesting post. i view portraits more as historical records. The works of Sargent is remarkable and his paintings are some of my favorites among the Gardner museum'scollection. I prefer photography though as i feel it does capture the moment unstaged.

  38. That is truly special.

    My mother-in-law's second husband has a family summer home in Fenwick, CT, and every time we're there I marvel at the lineups of paintings on every wall, of the family 50 years ago and idyllic in every way. My husband's stepfather has similar paintings in his home office – one large round painting for each of his four boys, forever small children, looking down on him as he works. This is preferable to him than the real deal because there is now some sort of family rift and three of them don't speak to George.

    I wonder if more so than in photographs, paintings exhibit a timelessness that is reassuring to those who need it most. Back in Fenwick, there are always small dramas and conflicts going on between George's siblings and their ferocious mother, the family matriarch. They won't all inhabit the summer home at the same time, and instead mark out the weeks they'd each like to be there.

    And so individually they visit this home that does nothing more than showcase the family's togetherness from its walls, in rich oils and deep colors. The irony amazes me every time.

  39. What a family treasure. Truly.

    Speaking of, these lines just leap off the page, "Privilege sometimes lands you in the vicinity of special. You get a better view, not necessarily a place on the playing field. Oh, and apparently Teddy cheated." Well done you.

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