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Aaron Shikler | Portrait /Figurative painter

Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, 1970

By William Grimesnov - Aaron Shikler, an artist whose portraits of America’s economic, political and social elite included a brooding John F. Kennedy, a sorrowful Jacqueline Kennedy and a buoyant Ronald Reagan in jeans and work shirt, died on Thursday at his home in Manhattan. He was 93.
The death was confirmed by his daughter, Cathy Shikler van Ingen.
Mrs. Kennedy became an admirer of Mr. Shikler after seeing the paintings he had done of the children of the actor Peter Lawford and Patricia Kennedy Lawford, one of the president’s sisters. In 1967 she asked him to do pastel portraits of her children, Caroline and John, and a group portrait of all three. A commission to do official White House portraits of her and (a posthumous one) of her husband followed.

Official Presidential portrait of John F. Kennedy painted by Shikler
Nancy Reagan's official White House portrait by Shikler hangs in the Vermeil Room

Except for one passing glimpse from afar, Mr. Shikler had never seen Kennedy in person. He studied dozens of photographs and eventually settled on a somber, reflective pose. In the portrait, Kennedy, dressed in a gray suit and blue tie, stands with his arms folded across his chest, his head tilted down.
"I painted him with his head bowed, not because I think of him as a martyr, but because I wanted to show him as a president who was a thinker", Mr. Shikler told The Washington Post in 1971. "A thinking president is a rare thing".
Mrs. Kennedy had made only one demand, he wrote in an article for McCall’s magazine in March 1971: "I don’t want him done the way everybody does him - with that puffiness under the eyes and every shadow and crease magnified".
The painting of Mrs. Kennedy caused a stir even before it was unveiled at the White House in February 1971. The McCall’s issue had for its cover one of his pastel studies for Mrs. Kennedy’s portrait. Maxine Cheshire, a columnist for The Washington Post, obtained a copy of the magazine, and the newspaper printed a reproduction of the painting in advance, forcing the White House Historical Association, which paid for the portraits, to move up the date of the unveiling.
Not even Ms. Cheshire knew, however, that Mrs. Kennedy (by then known as Mrs. Onassis) and her children had made a secret visit to the White House to see the paintings, their first since President Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963.
When some critics complained that the painting was gloomy and unheroic, Mr. Shikler had an answer. "I said the hell with it", he told People magazine in 1981. "Mrs. Kennedy loved the idea, I loved the idea, and it certainly stands out among all those God-forsaken postage-stamp portraits hanging in the White House".
Aaron Abraham Shikler was born on March 18, 1922, in Brooklyn, where he grew up near Eastern Parkway. After graduating in 1940 from the High School of Music and Art, he enrolled in the Tyler School of Art at Temple University in Philadelphia. But in 1943 he was drafted into the Army Air Corps and sent to the European theater as a mapmaker.
He returned to Tyler after the war, earning bachelor’s degrees in art and education in 1947 and a master’s degree in fine art the next year. In 1947 he married Barbara Lurie, a fellow art student, who died in 1998. In addition to his daughter, he is survived by a son, Clifford, and five grandchildren.
For three years after leaving Tyler, Mr. Shikler studied in New York with the abstract painter Hans Hofmann, but he remained a committed realist throughout his life, under the sway of artists like Degas, Vuillard, Sickert and Sargent. Describing his paintings of the Kennedys, he told The Post in 1971, "Both portraits are straight American representational, tempered by a vast study of European tradition".
To make a living, he painted clowns and ballerinas for a wholesale company, signing the work "Phil I. Steen" to register his disgust. When Leroy Davis, an Army friend, opened the Davis Gallery in Manhattan in 1953, he began showing Mr. Shikler’s work, which included figure studies, still lifes and landscapes. He remained with the gallery, now Davis and Langdale, for the rest of his life, often showing with his Tyler friend David Levine, the caricaturist.
A turning point came in 1959 when Jane Engelhard, the wife of the industrialist Charles W. Engelhard Jr., asked Mr. Shikler to paint her portrait. She became one of his most important patrons, commissioning portraits of Lady Bird Johnson, the Duchess of Windsor and Mike Mansfield, the Senate majority leader. He would later paint portraits of Brooke Astor, Joanne Woodward, Queen Noor of Jordan and Diana Ross with her three children.
He also painted a posthumous portrait of Robert F. Kennedy, dressed casually in khaki pants and a leather jacket, which hangs in the Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building.
If many critics found Mr. Shikler old-fashioned, his style and approach made him enormously successful. "He does not seek out the avant-garde, and he is not a guest at SoHo painters’ parties", his dealer, Mr. Davis, told People. "But he will do 90 percent of the important portraits to be done in America".
He had a sure if genteel touch, and a keen sense of the play of light on surfaces, that infused his paintings with mood and a sense of presence that flattered his subjects. In a 1979 review for The New York Times, John Russell characterized Mr. Shikler’s portrait work as "easygoing, tenderhearted and the reverse of unsettling".
That was not quite the case with his portrait of Mrs. Kennedy, which depicted her in front of a fireplace in her Fifth Avenue apartment, her elongated figure and grave expression reflecting the artist’s first impression of her, described in his McCall’s article, as "a woman of almost spooky beauty and extraordinary inner tension".
It was a little too spooky for Richard M. Nixon. "He felt that Jacqueline had been depicted as a mournful, wraithlike figure", the Nixon aide John D. Ehrlichman told Art News in 1982. He added, "The portrait was depressing and reminiscent of J.F.K.’s assassination, and for a time Nixon wondered if it could be put away out of sight". Fear of bad publicity kept the painting where it was.
In 1980, Time magazine commissioned Mr. Shikler to paint Reagan for the cover of its Man of the Year issue. He was given just 90 minutes in which to do preliminary studies, during which the president-elect fell asleep. The portrait showed Reagan, hands tucked into the back pockets of his jeans, wearing a Western belt and a blue work shirt.
In 1988 the White House Historical Association commissioned Mr. Shikler to paint official portraits of Reagan and his wife. The portrait of Nancy Reagan, in a striking red dress, went smoothly, but Mr. Shikler and the Reagans went back and forth over his portrait of her husband. A first version had to be scrapped. The final version, showing the president standing in front of his desk in the Oval Office, hung briefly in the White House but went into storage in 1991, quietly replaced by another official portrait, by Everett Raymond Kinstler.
Famous or not, Mr. Shikler was still an artist trying to please a patron. "The portrait painter, you know, is stuck somewhere in there among the couturier, the hairdresser and the masseuse", he told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1989. | © The New York Times Company

Nancy Reagan's official White House portrait by Shikler hangs in the Vermeil Room

Nancy Reagan's official White House portrait by Shikler hangs in the Vermeil Room

Lady Bird Johnson

Awards and honors
Shikler was elected a centennial fellow of Temple University in 1985, an academician of the National Academy of Design in 1965 and an associate of the National Academy of Design in 1962. Shikler received the Louis Comfort Tiffany Award in 1957 and the Thomas B. Clarke Prize in 1958, 1960, and 1961. 
In 1976, he received the State Department Traveling Grant, a Certificate of Honor at the Tyler School of Art and the Benjamin Altman Prize from the National Academy of Design.

Lady Bird Johnson

Official Presidential portrait of John F. Kennedy

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