The Authentic Imposter The woman presidential portrait painter who was more than the sum of her poses.

Kempton doing one of her own pieces, not a commission. (Photo courtesy of Kristen Jasinski)

“Exact resemblance to exact resemblance the exact resemblance as exact as a resemblance, exactly as resembling, exactly resembling, exactly in resemblance exactly a resemblance, exactly and resemblance. For this is so. Because.”

—Gertrude Stein, from If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso

 

 

Done right, a portrait captures more than the angle of the nose, the curve of a sly smile, the gold flecks in hazel eyes. Done right, it captures someone’s essence—the truth of who they are.

And if a portrait artist is not quite who she claims to be? It hardly matters, as long as she is talented and perceptive. Greta Kempton was both. The first woman to paint the official portrait of a U.S. president, she also painted Cabinet officials, governors, senators, the head of the Atomic Energy Commission, two Postmasters General, a Supreme Court justice, several university presidents, and a Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church.

But what would have happened if Greta Kempton had painted a self-portrait?

We already know the self she would have shown us: a cultured, well-bred young woman who studied at the Vienna Academy of Art (the august institution that twice denied admission to Hitler) before coming to this country in the 1920s and charming us with grace and talent. She would have been formally dressed and beautifully coiffed for her portrait, and she would have been adorned with diamonds.

Maybe the ones she stole.

The Times prides itself on its factchecking, but obituaries can be tricky—especially if someone has lived, for decades, a life so polished that nothing mars its surface, suggesting a need to dredge.

Kempton, whom the Canton Museum of Art calls “one of the greatest unheralded portrait artists of the 20th century,” always told interviewers that after a refined upbringing and art education in Vienna, she came to the States with her family. No one dreamed that the “family” was a baby daughter and first husband, and they were fleeing Vienna so he could avoid criminal prosecution. Her New York Times obit mentions “Miss Kempton’s husband, A. M. McNamara”—not their two divorces, or her first husband, whom she married when she was eighteen, or her other two marriages (plus a pretend one to her half-brother). We are told that her ashes were placed in the columbarium at The Church of the Transfiguration—but not that she was born Jewish and grew up as Martha Beer, the daughter of an unwed mother.

The Times prides itself on its factchecking, but obituaries can be tricky—especially if someone has lived, for decades, a life so polished that nothing mars its surface, suggesting a need to dredge.

 

•  •  •

 

Greta Kempton (Photo courtesy of Kristen Jasinski)

She usually gave her year of birth as 1903, a fib we can trace back at least as far as the year she miraculously turned “thirty-nine” just months after turning forty-one. A harmless vanity. But had there been an internet in those days, a search for Greta Kempton, born in 1903, would have yielded nothing.

Martha Beer, on the other hand, was born in 1901.

Wesley and Kristen Jasinski, collectors who now own four hundred Kempton paintings, grew intrigued by her elusive past and hired researcher Bruce Scivally to do some digging. First he learned Greta’s real name. No father’s name was recorded on her birth certificate, but he was eventually able to identify her father as Herman Klempfner Kempton, a Romanian Jew who emigrated and set up business in Manchester, England. Perhaps Herman fell in love with Martha/Greta’s mother, a language teacher named Josefine Beer, after hiring her to teach his sons? Scivally says Martha finally met her father when she was eighteen years old. The encounter must have gone surprisingly well, because she took his name and later grew unusually close to at least one of her six half-siblings. Scivally even found an importer/exporter in Vienna who had known H.K. Kempton and recalled him introducing Martha Beer as his illegitimate child.

When she and her father met, Martha was about to be married. Days before the ceremony, she was legally adopted by Max and Jetty Goldstein. Just to have a married couple as her parents on the wedding certificate? People have gone to greater lengths for propriety’s sake. In any event, she ended the year as Martha Beer Kempton Goldstein Vago, rather a lot of names to rest on an eighteen-year-old’s narrow shoulders.

And who was this Vago chap? Fourteen years older than she, also Jewish, he had come to Vienna from Kecskemet, Hungary, where he had already had a few skirmishes with the law. He called himself Sandor Vago, though he would later open a jewelry business as Alexander Taylor. Sometimes he styled himself Alexander Vago Taylor, sometimes Alexander Taylor Vago. Never Alexander Schor, which, according to one passport, was his father’s surname, with Taylor as his mother’s maiden name.

Let us call him Alexander.

Soon she would switch to her middle name, Greta, and rent herself a studio at 54 West Seventy-Fourth Street in Manhattan, a high-rise with an elegant limestone façade a few blocks west of Central Park. Her transformation had begun.

When Alexander proposed to young, lovely Martha, he probably did not mention that he had already served prison time for fraud. A respectable nine months after they married, she gave birth to a baby girl, Marguerite Augusta, whom they called Margaret Gusti or simply Daisy. By the time Daisy was five, her father had been arrested again and was appealing the charge. To avoid prosecution, he fled with his wife and child to New York, then Montreal, then Mexico City.

Martha left her husband a year later, claiming he had a violent temper. She smuggled herself, Daisy, and rather a lot of jewelry (her own, she said, which she had offered as a dowry, but also 135 pieces from his shop) across the border. Then Alexander managed to kidnap Daisy and win back the jewelry. Years later, Martha won everything back by default because he failed to appear in court.

That is a calm summary of enough drama for a miniseries. At one point, she had to hide out and wait for a chance to snatch Daisy back. Mother and daughter made it across the border, but Alexander sweettalked U.S. officials into a passport so he could hunt down his daughter, his wife, and the jewelry she had absconded with. By then she was living in Los Angeles, supporting herself and Daisy by doing decorative silk painting. Having entered the country illegally, she had bypassed Customs, so Alexander reported her to the immigration authorities, who ordered his wife and daughter deported. He then stole Daisy back again.

Martha went to live with her half-brother, Arthur Kempton, in Montreal. His wife, Nellie Kempton, seethed as she watched her houseguest stroke Arthur’s back affectionately and party with him until all hours, ignoring propriety by flirting and partying with a married man (not to mention a blood relation). When Nellie finally exploded, Martha immediately offered to leave—which would have been fine, except that Arthur went with her.

In Nellie’s eyes, Martha was a homewrecker. But Martha might have just felt relieved to be with someone she could trust. A brother who would look out for her, and with whom she could let down her guard and have some of the carefree fun she had missed in her teens. And Arthur might have been ready to leave anyway, and now eager to play the role of knight in shining armor. What transpired between them, we will never know. But it raises eyebrows to learn that she posed as her half-brother’s wife to re-enter the States, and they settled down as a couple on Long Island.

There, she enrolled at the National Academy of Design. Three years later, her divorce from Vago was finalized, and with Arthur’s help, she regained custody of poor little Daisy. Handed over to authorities in Laredo, Texas, Daisy was locked in a cell to keep her father from kidnapping her back again. Then, because the deportation order was still in force, her mother sent her to boarding school in Canada.

Martha, meanwhile, had found a way to stay in the country. She would marry a fellow Viennese, now a U.S. citizen, named Otto Zimmand. He was in love with his stenographer but unable to wring a divorce from his wife. Martha’s lawyer promised to secure him a Mexican divorce if he would then temporarily marry Martha, just long enough for her to apply for citizenship.

She was naturalized in 1931. That was also the year she first exhibited her work, at the Salons of America, using the name Mrs. Martha Kempton. Soon she would switch to her middle name, Greta, and rent herself a studio at 54 West Seventy-Fourth Street in Manhattan, a high-rise with an elegant limestone façade a few blocks east of Central Park .

Her transformation had begun.

 

•  •  •

 

Greta moved back and forth between New York and L.A., where she painted studio heads and starlets. In the late 1930s, she did a portrait of New Jersey governor Harold Hoffman. “I did his portrait in three days and collapsed with fatigue on the fourth,” she used to say wryly; she was good at adding color and drama to reports of her work. She gave a supper and musicale that year that made the society pages of The New York Times. She also painted portraits of Mario Korbel, a renowned sculptor, and of Dr. Guy W. Bailey, president of Vermont University.

In 1942, Greta married a lawyer and business executive, A.M. McNamara. An Irish immigrant seventeen years older and at least a foot taller than tiny Greta, he had made sweet profit on his Cuban sugar and molasses interests. The two had met six months earlier, at an art exhibit. Now Greta went with him to New Orleans, where he had business interests, and painted portraits there—bigwigs, society ladies, children, commissions to match someone’s sofa. She was patient, gracious even, with the philistines. Nothing ruffled her feathers.

Except love. After five months, she divorced McNamara. Two days later, she married a younger guy named Robert Haimann. He was besotted with her. He told his friends that she associated with “the finest society you can imagine.”

Two months later, on Halloween, of all days, she divorced Haimann and remarried McNamara. The same day.

Had she fallen impulsively in love with Haimann or just schemed and self-corrected? She told the divorce court that he had twisted her arm on the evening of their marriage, causing her great pain, and two days later had slapped her violently in the face. He denied both accusations, saying she must have had “personal reasons” to file for divorce. “When a lady asks a gentleman for divorce,” he continued, “a gentleman generally gives it to her.”

Eight years later, it was McNamara she was asking for divorce. She accused him of embarrassing her in public places and in front of her friends. “If I did I’m sorry,” he said, bemused. “Maybe we had an argument. I don’t know if you would call that embarrassment—a difference of opinion, you know. She said, ‘I’d like to dine at such-and-such a place,’ and I said, ‘I like another place better.’”

Greta later gave another reason for the divorce, Scivally learned. She said that McNamara, a Catholic, had refused to have sex with her, because a priest had told him it would be a sin because of her prior divorces. “Unfortunately, he was Catholic and he had a lot of difficulties with his religion,” she said, “or at least, he thought he could overcome it once. He couldn’t quite make it.”

Michael Lenihan had always thought of Greta as royalty, and her studio reminded him of a Tudor mansion, the wood dark and glowing, the ceiling two stories high, a clear north light coming through the tall, mullioned windows.

McNamara remained fond of Greta, whose work he had faithfully championed. Thanks to his connections, she almost added the portrait of a Latin American dictator—Generalissimo Rafael Trujillo, president of the Dominican Republic—to her portfolio. McNamara kept reminding her how beautiful all those gold medals and braids would look. But to his boyish disappointment, Trujillo was assassinated before she could begin.

Michael Lenihan, whose mother was treasurer of one of McNamara’s companies, remembers him bringing Greta out to their house on Long Island once or twice a year, decades after their divorce. “You just felt, Oh, that’s Ambrose’s friend Greta, but you never would have thought of her as The Ex-Wife,” Lenihan says. “They were very comfortable with each other—warm, but respectful, with a bit of formality.” He remembers the rhythm of their conversations more than the content: Ambrose’s soft, still thick brogue; Greta’s beautiful diction, every word selected precisely.

When Lenihan took a job at a bank near Greta’s studio, she paid him to pose for her in a navy suit. She was trying to paint a somber portrait of a powerful CEO, and she wanted to get his jacket sleeve just right. Lenihan had always thought of her as royalty, and her studio reminded him of a Tudor mansion, the wood dark and glowing, the ceiling two stories high, a clear north light coming through the tall, mullioned windows. “She was totally calm when she painted,” he says, remembering how carefully she adjusted the wrinkles at his elbow. “She always came across as determined, in total control of her life.”

 

•  •  •

 

Greta Kempton with her official portrait of President Harry S. Truman. (Photo courtesy of Kristen Jasinski)

 

 

As Greta was filing for divorce from McNamara, she met Willard “Stub” Walker, president of the Continental Can Company. They dined together, and she was smitten enough—and bold enough, for 1950—to call him the next morning. As for Walker, he was married and frank about that fact, but he found he did not want to let her go.

They wound up in Reno, where he filed for divorce while his wife filed back in Ohio. (Divorce was complicated back then.) He and Greta married and moved into the Shoreham Hotel in D.C., where they entertained like crazy. They also bought a house in Virginia; later, they bought a second place in Santa Monica, and Greta bought her old apartment in New York.

The year they met, she had painted Samuel Cardinal Stritch, beginning in the Queen Anne-style mansion that was the Chicago archbishop’s residence. He was “just the nicest,” she bubbled later. “Did anything I asked him.” Which included climbing the stairs to a loft of his office, despite the blazing heat and the ermine stole draped around his shoulders, “the poor darling.” After the sittings, he entrusted her with the stole, his cassock and ferriola, his emerald pectoral cross and the ring of the cardinalate—an emerald the size of an almond—so she could get the details just right when she returned to her New York studio.

She also did a portrait of the former Attorney General, Tom Clark, that year. But because Walker did not want her working, she agreed to accept no new commissions, contenting herself with a visiting instructor gig at the Cooper School of Art and visits to art schools and museums everywhere they traveled. All was well, at least on the surface, until 1961, when Walker retired. At his urging, they bought a farm in Hinckley, Ohio, where he spent his time outside, riding horses and “leaving me alone,” she would testify in divorce court. “He doesn’t like social life, as you know. We don’t know anybody, really.” She turned a log cabin on the property into a studio and painted fulltime; what else was there to do on a farm? Picture Eva Gabor in Green Acres….

The year they met, she had painted Samuel Cardinal Stritch, beginning in the Queen Anne-style mansion that was the Chicago archbishop’s residence. He was “just the nicest,” she bubbled later. “Did anything I asked him.”

She had once described her relationship with Walker in passionate terms; now, that passion had curdled. He sued for divorce in 1965, and bitter accusations were flung in both directions. The court file is well over one hundred pages, and at least six depositions are missing, their absence marked with handwritten “cannot be located” notations. Which is maddening, because those were the juicy depositions rounded up by Walker’s attorney and used to question his wife’s citizenship, her Austrian past, and her relationship with her half-brother.

The court record also shows that the deposition of Arthur’s wife, Nellie Smith Kempton, had to be set aside, because there were “numerous handwritten interlineations which are in complete disagreement with or entirely reversed the witness’ testimony,” and the court reporter who transcribed the original deposition knew nothing of them and had not witnessed the signature.

Nothing in Greta Kempton’s life was simple.

She had gotten past the mandate that she no longer work professionally, and she had sulked her way through the farm years, but what eventually broke the marriage was the combination of Walker’s financial problems and sneaky attempts to evade his debts to Greta; his violent temper (per Greta); his resentful daughter; and whatever Greta did, which goes largely unmentioned, in quiet retaliation.

Both parties accused the other of gross neglect of duty and extreme cruelty. The court found that Walker’s grounds were not evidence for divorce but Greta’s were. She was allowed to keep all the financial assets he was angling for. He could keep his farm, his rare books on hunting in England, his grandmother’s Napoleon plates, his Troop A Calvary plates, two Russian sconces, and the portrait Greta had painted of him.

 

•  •  •

 

What backdrop would Greta use, I wonder, for her portrait? A bit of artfully blurred old world scenery from Vienna? The bold colors of Mexico City, where she and her unscrupulous husband had fled? Sunny California? New York, center of her artistic life? D.C., where she became the nation’s most sought-after portrait artist? Or rural Ohio, where she nearly died of ennui?

Striking an interesting pose would have been easy; she had been posing all her adult life. Or is that fair? She had lived as who she knew, deep down, she was. And pragmatically speaking, to gain credence—not to mention commissions and a New York studio—she needed to cultivate a certain aura.

Any portrait is a negotiation: how the subject wants to be seen, how the artist sees the subject, and what result is desired by whoever is footing the bill. So Greta engaged in a bit of performance art, giving Americans the European artiste of their imaginings. Hair upswept, she painted in full-length hostess gowns of velvet or silk. The role fit like one of her kid leather gloves, so how can we call it a lie? It certainly thrilled her subjects.

“Miss Kempton was quite an accomplished portrait painter and artist,” said one of her delighted subjects, John Snyder, Secretary of the Treasury during the Truman Administration. “She was born in Austria of rather well-to do parents, and had been given art lessons with several noted European portrait painters.”

Greta engaged in a bit of performance art, giving Americans the European artiste of their imaginings. Hair upswept, she painted in full-length hostess gowns of velvet or silk. The role fit like one of her kid leather gloves, so how can we call it a lie?

Like so many others, Snyder was entranced by Greta’s European sophistication. Is the phrase redundant? Only in the States, where we still read “European” as synonymous with “cultured.” In any other country, it might seem odd that an immigrant was chosen—eagerly—to memorialize those in the highest offices of the nation. That an immigrant’s work would hang in the White House, the Pentagon, the Treasury Department, the Department of Justice, the Federal Reserve Building, and the U.S. Supreme Court. But Kempton was a Viennese immigrant, and rather than assimilate, she carried herself with an Old World style that assured her welcome.

 

•  •  •

 

It was John Snyder who moved Greta closer to the Oval Office. As he recalled it, “One day Mrs. Snyder, Drucie, and I walked through the lobby of the hotel and Miss Kempton became very much attracted to my daughter and asked the Martins who we were and asked if it would be possible for her to meet us, as she had a great desire to paint a portrait of Drucie.”

Next, John commissioned a portrait of himself (Greta would eventually paint him six times), and one of his wife.

“In the meantime,” he said later for an oral history, “she asked would it be possible to paint the President’s portrait and I talked with him about it and he said, ‘Why, yes, it would be all right.’”

And Greta’s version? “I was told unofficially that a group of friends were considering asking me to do a portrait of President Truman, and that, in his typical frank humor, he had said to Mr. Snyder, ‘Because you need your portrait for the Treasury, why don’t you go first? Maybe that little lady artist can only paint little girls!’”

However he put it, that was certainly the tone of the times. Nonetheless, Truman sat patiently for his portrait (and Greta would wind up doing several more, including one of him in Masonic regalia for the Masonic Temple in St. Louis). When she arrived at the Cabinet Room, staff had her easel and supplies set up. She waved away the Secret Service agents, and when the President appeared with papers in his hand, she told him it was time for him to relax while she worked.

“We never lacked for conversation because he took my work seriously,” she said later, “and had a limitless curiosity about my techniques. He wanted to know about colors, about the brushes used and about the work of other painters.”

She noted his “clear-cut features and the kind of fair skin that reflects the light,” and as usual, she paid close attention to his eyes, which she found expressive, their color a lit-up blue. “When he looked at me I felt he was trying to sum me up immediately.”

When she arrived at the Cabinet Room, staff had her easel and supplies set up. She waved away the Secret Service agents, and when the President appeared with papers in his hand, she told him it was time for him to relax while she worked.

Truman soon came to trust Greta, and he would arrive grumbling about how impossible it was to please everyone, how “people as well as nations can be quite unreasonable.” Once he warned her that he only had eleven minutes before he had to break for an important meeting, to which she replied (sarcastically or seriously?) “Mr. President, in eleven minutes anyone can paint a masterpiece.”

The Democratic National Committee used Greta’s portrait for Truman’s second campaign, retouching a black-and-white photograph to bring out the World War I Army button on his lapel. Later, it was used to issue a U.S. postage stamp and mint a U.S. coin with his likeness.

Greta also painted his daughter, Margaret Truman, and in 1952, a portrait of Bess for the White House’s First Lady collection. The Trumans liked it so much that when it was mistakenly packed up with their belongings and shipped to their home in Independence, they decided to keep it. Greta could paint a copy as the official portrait, Bess said, refusing to sit for a new version. “I like everything about the painting you made. I like the eyes, the hands, the dress; I even like the background. Why should I have a new portrait painted?” She still had the dress, she added, up in the attic. And she ran—“yes, ran—upstairs to get it,” Greta would recall. “I was licked.”

 

•  •  •

 

Her one-woman show at the Corcoran ran all of February 1949 and “attracted more visitors than any exhibition by a living artist,” according to many subsequent write-ups about Greta. She said so herself in a 1973 reminiscence for the Missouri Historical Review. But she did not finish the sentence.

“The exhibit was a great success,” the gallery director had written to her (they still have the letter in her file). “It attracted more visitors than any exhibit by a living artist that we have had since I have been at the Corcoran.”

He had only been there three years.

Once he warned her that he only had eleven minutes before he had to break for an important meeting, to which she replied (sarcastically or seriously?) “Mr. President, in eleven minutes anyone can paint a masterpiece.”

McNamara, in love with his wife’s art and as earnest as a golden retriever, helped with the PR, writing the director afterward: “This is to remind you of your promise to write Greta Kempton a note reporting that President Truman, and Daughter Margaret, visited her exhibit on Sunday afternoon, February 20th.”

Important commissions had to keep working for Greta, keep her name on everyone’s tongue. When the wife of Sen. Carter Glass wrote to Greta, disturbed about a bit of damage to his portrait during one of her exhibitions, she replied weeks later, begging forgiveness for the delay: “I had to complete a portrait by a deadline date, for an important Family celebration. You may have seen an account of it in the Press…. At the present time I am painting a portrait of a very prominent person in Washington, and this, also, must be completed early June, so you see, I have been very busy.”

President Dwight D. Eisenhower reportedly asked not once but four times if she would paint his portrait. She graciously refused—and made that four-time refusal publicly known. President Lyndon B. Johnson also asked, but she said her devotion to the Trumans would preclude that. President Ronald Reagan did not ask, but he did send her a birthday card; her reputation lingered in the White House.

And she kept her past blurred.

Interviewed by researchers at the Truman Library (to which she left her entire estate, disinheriting Daisy after years of estrangement), Greta was breezily vague. Asked if the Vienna Secession had any influence on her work, she said none whatsoever, “because I wasn’t there anymore.”

“Were you in boarding school in England, is that correct?”

“I was in boarding school in Vienna, but I came to America.”

“In the 1920s.”

“Yes. I don’t know when that started, really I don’t.”

The interviewer told her that the Vienna Secession started in 1897, “around the time you were born.”

“Oh, yes, but you see, I didn’t get near that,” Greta says. “Because in boarding school it didn’t come near me, and at home we had very formal paintings.”

She left Vienna as Mrs. Martha Vago in 1925. She began painting portraits in the 1930s. By the mid-1940s, power brokers were lining up to sit for a Greta Kempton portrait. In 1947, a Washington Post article heralded portraits of Drucie Snyder and President Truman done by “Chilean-born artist Greta Kempton.”

Chilean?

Sloppy reporters helped with the blurring, but Greta had done her part. Near her life’s end, retelling some of her favorite stories, she remarked, “I know it doesn’t sound true, but why would I make up such a silly story?” and later, “This also doesn’t seem true. I tell so many stories that don’t seem true to me today.”

 

•  •  •

 

What would happen if I went to Vienna and looked for Greta’s past? Are there traces of blood and rage in Mexico? We create ourselves. And no one knows that better than an artist who has crafted such a meticulous persona. What would she have seen in the mirror—a deception or a masterpiece?

Or are all masterpieces to some degree deceptions, simply by virtue of what they choose to omit? To reveal, they have to conceal. Driven by her gift for portraiture, she set out to paint the truth of other people’s lives, not her own. And even their truth, she softened, as portrait artists often have.

Women project a picture of themselves, she once told a Washington Post reporter. “The trick is to try to portray them as they visualize themselves. Men generally have no preconceived idea as to how they should look on canvas. Therefore they are easier to please…. The artist must make them look as strong and important as possible, and strength usually is accentuated in the eyes….”

Driven by her gift for portraiture, she set out to paint the truth of other people’s lives, not her own. And even their truth, she softened, as portrait artists often have.

She said this at a time when no one would have gagged. Yet if someone had looked past her loveliness, they would have seen strength in her eyes, too. Resilience, grit, a certain ferocity she knew how to conceal. She had won a rare independence by pleasing whenever necessary, but she had never sold her soul. Flattery decorated the surface, but she was still bent on revealing her subjects’ personality—and perhaps, in the intimacy of portraiture, infusing a bit of her own.

Greta’s biggest commissions were men charged with power, vibrating with it. Yet they sat, obediently passive, for hours at a stretch, and her gaze was steady, looking deep inside them, owning them. You can just hear that soft Viennese accent, mock-scolding her important subjects to sit still. She took her work, and her dignity, seriously.

 

•  •  •

 

One of the Kempton paintings in the Truman Library collection, Woman in Red, is thought to be a self-portrait. I am not convinced. Yes, the lips are prettily painted in a cupid’s bow, and the right props are there—oil paints, an easel, a green backdrop cloth slung over the left side. But the woman has her hair down, and she is wearing something plain and red with a white, schoolgirlish collar. I cannot imagine Greta styling herself so simply.

Instead, I imagine this tiny, forceful woman choosing an oversize canvas, donning a gorgeous gown, and using nothing but the finest paints and brushes. That was it, you see: the drive to have, and be, the best. Unusual in a woman of that time. (Or at least unrecognized.)

Greta’s biggest commissions were men charged with power, vibrating with it. Yet they sat, obediently passive, for hours at a stretch, and her gaze was steady, looking deep inside them, owning them.

Greta fluttered her lashes when she had to, once noting, “Men seem a little frightened when they learn I am a portrait painter. But, then, they find out I haven’t any brains and everything is all right.” Yet she made enough money to lend it to her husbands, lived independently, just as she chose, and never let domesticity get in her way. During her last divorce trial, she told the court Walker usually made her breakfast. Asked if she did any of the housework, she drew herself up: “I am not a maid.”

 

•  •  •

 

 

An example of Kempton’s looser, more modern brushwork as her style evolved. (Photo courtesy of Kristen Jasinski)

 

 

Greta Kempton was the first woman to paint an official portrait of the president of the United States. In 1962, Elaine de Kooning became the second. But oh, how different her portrait of John F. Kennedy is, large and colorful, casual and revealing.

Truman never would have sat for such a portrait. “There is no art at all in connection with the modernists in my opinion,” he once proclaimed. De Kooning knew his feelings well: “I hope that after a while, President Truman will get used to my portrait,” she said. “I’m afraid it may take a bit of getting used to.”

There is a photograph of Truman standing with her in front of her JFK portrait. He is leaning hard on his cane and looking away. In the fifteen years between Greta’s first portrait of him and this one, art had broken free and escaped him.

Portraiture, the old way, now struck the world as stuffy, too posed and artificial. “Once you are set to make a portrait, you’re free to make a painting,” de Kooning wrote. We might have expected Greta, who had always said she had “no patience with a portrait which is not a true likeness,” to cling to convention. Instead, she responded as an artist, studying the new trends, analyzing others’ experiments, loosening up her own work.

The character studies she did in her later years won fresh attention, because they had such life in them. Even the floral still lifes were somehow different, and she did more and more of them, going down the alley behind a nearby funeral home and appropriating the discarded arrangements.

Doing an oral history with Greta in 1987, when she was in her mid-eighties, an interviewer noted that her work had “an old world flavor.” She winced. “Yes, it has. And I’ve been trying to get away from it.”

There is a photograph of Truman standing with her in front of her JFK portrait. He is leaning hard on his cane and looking away. In the fifteen years between Greta’s first portrait of him and this one, art had broken free and escaped him.

The following year, she was asked to paint, yet again, Harry S. Truman. That done, she must have grown bored, because she walked down the street to The Church of the Transfiguration and told Father Norman Catir she would be happy to help them restore some of their paintings. “We don’t have the money to pay you,” the priest said, and she brushed that aside. “I could do this one for you,” she offered, pointing to a dulled oil painting affixed to the wall above a side altar.

“But—we can’t take it down,” he said.

“That’s okay. I’ll come here and do it.”

She showed up in a fur coat, tossed it aside, and climbed a ladder, friends standing behind her to catch her if she fell. The priest, terrified, watched as she worked until the colors glowed again.

She had spent her life taking risks for art. Why stop now?

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