Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Rockwell and Annigoni paint JFK

Norman Rockwell was enthusiastic about modern art.  He always held Picasso, for example, in very high regard.  At risk of alienating readers before they even arrive--the mechanism there I leave to you to work out--I will admit that I do not share that opinion.  When I think of the giants of 20th century art, I tend to think instead of people like Pietro Annigoni.

And, now that I stop to reflect a bit, I think of Norman Rockwell, too.  So it's a happy coincidence that both of these great artists painted John F. Kennedy.  Rockwell actually painted Kennedy at least 3 times.  Annigoni only once, for the cover of the Time Magazine issue declaring Kennedy 1961's "Man of the Year."

Let's compare and see what we can learn.

Annigoni's portrait of Kennedy is loose and a bit unpleasant.

Kennedy's slight eye trouble is strongly emphasized, and he simply looks tired out.  He's mildly disheveled--note the tie and collar and the somewhat messy hair.  Not bad for a philosophy professor, but for a dashing young president, it's kind of unbecoming.  Wikipedia has this to say:

"Pietro Annigoni was chosen by TIME magazine to paint President of the United States John F. Kennedy for the (January 5) 1962 Person of the Year cover.  The result was perhaps his worst portrait as Kennedy would not sit still and Annigoni had no time or inclination to satisfy Time magazine."

I don't know if the portrait is Annigoni's way of punishing the squirmy young fella, or what.  But the image is not very flattering.

Now for Rockwell's.  (This is the first of the three.)

This was painted towards the end of the presidential campaign, rather than after a year in office so maybe it's no surprise that Kennedy looks a bit fresher here.  But is there more?  It's been suggested that Rockwell tweaked the eye a bit.  In Annigoni's, you can easily see what is sometimes called Kennedy's "lazy eye."  In Rockwell's, you really can't.  Is this a case of Rockwell whitewashing?  Has he hidden the unpleasant truth that JFK suffers from a minor eye affliction?

Honestly, no--at least, not very much.  Generally speaking, Kennedy's eye problems weren't immediately obvious.  At least, not to me: I had no idea that Kennedy had any eye issues until I saw Annigoni's portrait.  Once I saw it there, I could see it in some photos.  But not all.  Here, for example, if you're looking for it, you'll see it, though it's not nearly as obvious as in the painting.

 Here, however, you really don't see it at all.

And it's this squintier version of Kennedy that Rockwell has captured, probably because it's how Kennedy sat for him.

Rockwell is often accused of whitewashing, of falsifying, of denying the unpleasant or ugly. It's not a fair accusation, as I've argued here.  And I've made the case far more thoroughly in an essay forthcoming in Touchstone Magazine.  (Oh, and in my book.)  The Annigoni comparison here, though, can help give a little bit of insight into how the accusation gets so much traction.

If you look at the Annigoni next to the Rockwell and notice that Rockwell's Kennedy is apparently not suffering from an eye malady, but that Annigoni's Kennedy is, you might immediately jump to the conclusion that it's Annigoni's version that is to be trusted.  And perhaps it is to be trusted--perhaps that's how Kennedy really appeared to Annigoni on that day.  But even if Annigoni's version of Kennedy is an admissible one, so is Rockwell's: every bit as much.  

None of this even begins to address the deeper questions of whether Rockwell's portrait is a great one, or whether Annigoni's portrait is a great one, or which is better, or whatever.  Does Rockwell's picture get us into the soul of JFK?  Does Annigoni's?  Legitimate questions, and I don't have good answers.  For my own part, I wouldn't consider any of Rockwell's portraits to be among his greatest works.  I think he did very workmanlike portraits and I prefer his portrait of Kennedy to Annigoni's.  But that's not the point of this post.  The point here is simply to notice that the common complaint against Rockwell--the whitewashing complaint--here as always just gets it wrong.

PS: This news story is worth reading.  Not only does Annigoni speak a little about the JFK portrait session, but he also speaks of his young assistant, Ben Long, who is now a firmly established figure here in North Carolina, best known for his series of frescoes.  That's a craft he learned under the tutelage of Pietro Annigoni.  

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