Renowned Painter Aaron Shikler Reveals Stories Behind Famous White House Portraits

Good stories are like good friends. Sometimes they find you – other times you find them. The story of how I came to meet Aaron Shikler is a little bit of both.

At the annual White House Christmas reception for broadcast journalists in 2007, I stumbled upon a striking portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy. Though it was my first visit to the White House, I was mesmerized by this single picture more than anything else. Here stood a woman whose image had been replicated countless times, yet I’d never seen her so stunning – perfectly beautiful and complicated. Invited back to the White House this year, I felt compelled to visit the portrait once again. But this time, I noted the name engraved on the small gold plate nailed to the bottom of the frame: Aaron Shikler.

I had to learn more about him.

After a quick search, I discovered that in addition to painting Jackie O, Aaron Shikler also painted the posthumous portrait of her husband, President John F. Kennedy, and one of the most famous portraits of President Ronald Reagan. From socialites to senators, Cabinet members to Supreme Court justices, Shikler’s work spanned a dynamic time in America and put him literally face-to-face with history.

Now I just had to see if he’d sit face-to-face with me.

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    The portrait of Jackie was unveiled some 40 years ago, and Shikler’s birthdate put him just shy of 90 years old. To be honest, I didn't think he’d be able to do an interview. But I was wrong. I found Shikler very much alive, living in the same Manhattan apartment where he’s worked for decades.

    Shikler doesn't hear very well these days, although he still can tell a great joke. He’s a lively personality in a slight frame -- about 5 feet tall, dwarfed only by the immense amount of art in his fourth-floor studio. Shikler easily wheels around canvas frames twice his size without hesitation and without a cane. A pair of black, round-rimmed glasses hangs on his sweater collar – the kind made famous by John Lennon. The ash that sprinkles down the front of his sweater from his ever-present pipe matches the color of his hair. I found him remarkably light on his feet and quick with a question.

    “So…what exactly do you want to know?” he asked as he settled into his armchair.

    I hesitated to tell him the truth -- that I wanted to know everything. But first I needed to know about Jackie O.

    “You have to understand,” Shikler began. “There were two Jackies.”

    Jacqueline Kennedy asked him to paint her children shortly after her husband’s assassination in 1963. At times, he said, he found her deep in grief and understandably bitter -- but at other moments she was vibrant and hopeful. He never knew which Jackie to expect.

    One day the former first lady turned to him and casually asked if he’d paint her White House portrait, a request that came as quite a shock. “Under my breath … well …” He pauses and looks at me and starts to laugh. “I’d hate to tell you what I said under my breath! But I’ll just say, ‘Oh yes, I would be delighted to do it.’ ”

    The “two Jackies” Shikler speaks of refer not just to the woman herself, but also to his work. The painting in the White House was actually the second portrait he completed; he had decided the first was too dark. The “lightness” in the second -- the ethereal pink-beige gown the first lady is wearing -- didn’t actually exist. “The top is the top she was wearing, but she had a huge skirt underneath,” Shikler explained. “I decided to bring the shirt down, thinning her out a little.”

    When Shikler invited Jackie to see his new masterpiece, he says she took one look at it and said, “Why does the color look like old ladies’ underwear?”

    But that’s the portrait that hangs in the White House.

    “She was a fascinating woman,” Shikler says slowly. “Very handsome in a very special way – she had the greatest appreciation for letting me do what I do.”

    And her support changed the course of Shikler’s career and the way this nation remembers some of its most popular presidents. Mrs. Kennedy asked Shikler to do the portrait of her late husband -- quite a challenge since there wasn’t a person to meet or study. To fill that empty space, Shikler found a photo of JFK running up the stairs, and he liked the angle of Kennedy’s head so much he merged it with a body fashioned from a photo of his brother, Ted Kennedy, standing over the President’s gravesite – arms folded, deep in thought. Shikler says the portrait captures the “great moment” that defined JFK’s presidency -- “It had to be the Cuban Missile Crisis. What else could there be?”

    Shikler says some critics consider the portrait too serious, that the downward gaze conjures JFK’s assassination. But Jacqueline approved. Like most portraits of first ladies and presidents, their portraits hang separately in the White House. This seems lonely in a way, but that’s the interesting thing about these images -- you see something you instantly recognize but don’t completely understand, a frozen image that’s both familiar and mysterious, despite what you think you might know about the subject.

    It’s surprising work from someone whose first commissioned portrait was rejected, an experience Shikler still calls “heartbreaking.” One of his first jobs was drawing maps while he was stationed in Normandy with the Army during World War II. After the war, he painted clowns and ballerinas to make money. “I felt like a Philistine - so I started signing the pictures as Phil Istein – a new Dutch painter!” he recalls, laughing at the thought that some might not know that their “Istein” is an original “Shikler.”

    Shikler had made quite a name for himself when Time Magazine asked him to paint Ronald Reagan for the cover of its 1980 “Man of the Year” issue. The president-elect wore a cowboy shirt and belt buckle that he liked, but dozed off while sitting for the portrait – as did his assistant, according to Shikler.

    “I thought, ‘what the hell am I going to do now?’” Shikler recalls. He ended up scraping the furniture against the floor, waking Reagan, who then stood up in the pose Shikler ultimately captured.

    “He put his hands in his back pockets and started to think, and that was the portrait. He was a second-level actor who became governor of California and then president – surely a man like that would be deep in thought.”

    But Reagan’s wife, Nancy, didn’t approve. “She said, ‘Ronnie never looks down’ -- whatever that means…” Shikler shrugs.

    Mrs. Reagan later commissioned Shikler to paint her official White House portrait – though someone else painted the president’s.

    Of all the famous people he’s met, Shikler says one of his favorites was Lady Bird Johnson. But his most treasured muse remains his wife of 51 years, Barbara. “She’s 14 years dead,” he says, “but she’s still posing for me.”

    He motions to three fresh paintings of a woman standing at a mantle, her back to us, the sole of her bare foot peeking-out beneath her gown. He slowly mixes the color of her ivy dressing gown with oil paint from tubes with their ends rolled up like toothpaste. Using a long, thin brush, he swirls the colors together and starts to paint – always with his pipe in his mouth and always with natural light. He says the best light shines before 1 p.m.

    “Every painter wants to leave this world (knowing) that he has done one painting that he feels is really the great painting in his life,” Shikler says.

    “So far that hasn’t happened to me.”