This emerald portrait of John F. Kennedy shows Elaine de Kooning quick, color-driven style. (Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian)
This emerald portrait of John F. Kennedy shows Elaine de Kooning quick, color-driven style. (Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian)

To American abstract portraitist Elaine de Kooning, John F. Kennedy sometimes radiated warmth and tones of deep, genial orange. At other times, he radiated fleeting emerald and yellow in a mass of movements that bespeak an energetic, restless man.

Working from sketches drawn during sessions with Kennedy before his death, de Kooning told LIFE magazine she “produced hundreds of sketches and 23 finished paintings” of the president.

Nine of those Kennedy paintings and drawings are on view, along with 57 other de Kooning works, in a new exhibition, which opened March 13, at the National Portrait Gallery.

The sketches and paintings of Kennedy are perhaps the most recognizable works on view. Her work includes basic sketches of Kennedy’s facial features, the final orange-radiating portrait that went to the Harry S. Truman Library and the emerald one that hangs in the Portrait Gallery among other presidents’ portraits.

And while the subject of the Kennedy portraits may be markedly special, the process of creating the portraits throughout is similar be it for a person as stately as the president or a common individual.

The other portraits, of everyone from de Kooning herself to her husband and friends to the president, are exercises in color and form from a woman who truly understood how to use them both.

Close up, the pieces may be a jumble of brushstrokes in seemingly random hues, but from a few steps back they take shape: here is a man, here is his suit jacket, here is the elaborate leg of his chair.

“Elaine de Kooning was one of the American artists who helped advance the reputation of American art in the mid-20th century as innovative, brash and highly individualistic,” gallery director Kim Sajet said in a museum news release.

Notably, de Kooning’s husband Willem de Kooning, a fellow abstract expressionist, significantly influenced her color palette and hurried style.

Within her specific expressionism, facial expressions are absent: in some cases vague, in others brushed over entirely.

If the face, in traditional portraiture, is the expression of mind, soul and emotion, it is not so in de Kooning’s work. She either chose not to or had trouble conveying faces, most interestingly producing a nearly-faceless image of her husband, Willem.

But the expression is still there in the aura she conveys through the colors of the portrait.

“As a portraitist working in the gestural Abstract-Expressionist mode, [de Kooning] never abandoned working with the figure but ensured that a person’s likeness was linked to their innate vitality and spirit,” Sajet said in the release.

The details arrive later.

Amusingly, de Kooning used a portrait of art critic Thomas Hess as a model for some of the Kennedy portraits because de Kooning hadn’t sketched in a jacket, according to exhibition wall text.

One of the most viewer-friendly aspects of the exhibition is a scheduled loop of three short films about de Kooning. Some portray de Kooning in the act of painting a portrait – she was famously quick, usually finishing a life-size portrait in one sitting – which is wondrous to behold. The films are available to view online in English and Spanish.

Another crowdpleaser on view is a portrait of Brazilian soccer star Pelé.

“This exhibition is a perfect opportunity to present our collection and [de Kooning’s] modernist spirit,” Sajet said in the release.

The de Kooning exhibit, curated by Brandon Brame Fortune, runs in the National Portrait Gallery through Jan. 10, 2016.

headshotEvan Berkowitz is a freshman journalism major and can be reached at evanjberkowitz@gmail.com.

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