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    Franklin D. Roosevelt: Three Watercolor Proof Studies For Madame Elizabeth Shoumatoff's Legendary "Unfinished" Portrait of FDR.
    Executed in Roosevelt's final days, these three paintings were acquired from the estate of Madame Shoumatoff. Many consider them the most famous images ever produced of a sitting president. There are three separate watercolors, each with progressively more detail than the previous one, showing Roosevelt wearing his naval cape and holding a scroll. They were almost certainly used by the artist to create the famous "unfinished portrait" that hangs at Warm Springs as well as the portrait painted at the request of President Lyndon Johnson in 1967 for the Executive Mansion. Each study is archivally matted and framed in gold leaf. The first two measure 16.5" x 24" each and the third 20.5" x 24.5".

    An artist will often create studies such as these - they are the equivalent of a writer's outline and allow the painter to experiment with color and composition before putting brush and paint to canvas for the final version. Rarely, though, is there so much drama and intrigue associated with the painting of a portrait. Shoumatoff was FDR's personal guest at the Little White House in Warm Springs, Georgia where he sat for her during the final three days of his life. In her book titled FDR's Unfinished Portrait: A Memoir, Shoumatoff gives an account of the creation of these three historic paintings: "In the afternoon of April 11, 1945, the day before FDR's death, I continued making sketches for the background of the portrait in the cottage of FDR's Little White House with Lucy Mercer Rutherford watching. The pose was decided upon, but not the background. The portrait was to be life-size. I made one sketch with a plain background, another with some landscape resembling the surroundings at Hyde Park, still another with dark clouds which was quite effective. When Lucy, Laura Delano and Margaret Suckley came in to see me and looked at the sketches, the plain background was unanimously approved. I showed this to the President before he left for a drive with Lucy and one of his cousins. She also thought the plain background the best, though, for a moment, the suggestion of Hyde Park intrigued the President." These are the three original sketches to which Madame Shoumatoff refers, one of which FDR himself approved as the final sketch before commencing with the oil on canvas which Shoumatoff was painting the next day, April 12, 1945, when FDR died.

    The choice of a conservative Republican such as Elizabeth Shoumatoff to paint a portrait of a liberal Democrat such as Roosevelt is an interesting one. She was born into an aristocratic family in czarist Russia and emigrated to the United States in 1917. Her family had all made it big in America. Her husband - before he drowned in a swimming accident in the late 1920s - had become an executive in the Sikorsky Aviation Company while her brother, himself a painter and lepidopterist, became curator of the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. They blended easily into the social and political world of the conservative upper class. It was while summering in the Catskills in the early 1920s that Shoumatoff first rubbed elbows with America's leading capitalists and began painting them and their families. She soon built herself quite a successful career painting the "economic royalists" - Fords, Fricks, Mellons, five whole generations of Firestones - and she no doubt heard many an anti-Roosevelt uttering out of the mouths of her subjects during sittings. In 1943, friend and client Lucy Mercer Rutherford said to her "You should really paint the President. He has such a remarkable face. There is no painting of him that gives his true expression. I think you could do a wonderful portrait and he would be such an interesting person to paint! Would you do a portrait of him if it was arranged?" Shoumatoff was hesitant, but soon agreed and found herself in the White House two weeks later with a very comfortable and jovial FDR. Even with their philosophical and political differences, they became fast friends, swapping stories and laughing. The small portrait that resulted from this sitting didn't quite capture the Roosevelt she had come to admire and he agreed to sit for another, larger portrait that would hang either in the White House in Washington or at the Little White House in Warm Springs.

    This second sitting finally came about in April 1945 at Warm Springs. Shoumatoff arrived on April 9th and was shocked at the President's haggard appearance. "My first thought was... how could I make a portrait of such a sick man?" His spirits were high, though, and the first sittings, outdoors, took place on the 10th. An additional sitting took place on the 11th and photos were also taken to aid in her work. These two days are when the present watercolors were created. On the 12th, FDR once again posed for Shoumatoff. She thought "he looked cheerful and full of pep." Roosevelt was relaxed throughout. She "started, as usual, with the eyes." At times his gaze got distracted, even a little vacant, and Shoumatoff tried to rally his attention with a surefire gambit... stamps. Had he seen the new India issue? "In a little while, the eyes were placed and a familiar expression started to show. But it was not quite the look I was accustomed to during the past few days. The President seemed so absorbed, with the paper or something else, that when he would look up at my request, his gaze had a faraway aspect and was completely solemn." He brightened momentarily when Lucy or Margaret Suckley would say something from their perch on the couch, off to the side. Someone brought in a glass of green medicine. "What on earth was that for?" asked Shoumatoff. "To increase appetite" was Roosevelt's reply. When the butler brought in a bowl of oatmeal a few minutes later, however, he waved it away. "We have fifteen minutes more to work," Roosevelt told her as a steward prepared the table for luncheon. Then the President passed his hand over his forehead. Shoumatoff consistently held ever afterwards that he never said anything about a headache or pain, or anything at all for that matter after the "fifteen minutes more" comment. His head simply slumped forward listlessly. "Lucy, Lucy," Shoumatoff cried out, "something has happened!" She knocked her easel and tools over in a panicky rush to alert the Secret Service agent nearby. All was bedlam in an instant. A group of men now carried Roosevelt to the bedroom. "I could not see exactly who was carrying him but I will never forget that silhouette on the background of the open door to the sunny porch." Lucy suddenly said to her, "We must pack and go. The family is arriving by plane and the rooms must be vacant. We must get to Aiken before dark." Shoumatoff, Lucy, photographer Nicholas Robbins (who had been in another room and did not know what happened) and the unfinished portrait were packed into a car and driving away in a matter of minutes. Madame Shoumatoff donated the "unfinished portrait" to Warm Springs where it still hangs to this day. These amazing studies, made from life on FDR's last two full days alive would make a monumental addition to any collection.

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    December, 2019
    14th Saturday
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