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Museum of Fine Arts Boston acquires iconic Portrait of John F. Kennedy by artist Jamie Wyeth
Jamie Wyeth (American, born in 1946), Portrait of John F. Kennedy, 1967. Oil on canvas. Phyllis and Jamie Wyeth Collection. © Jamie Wyeth. Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

BOSTON, MASS.- Today, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, announced the acquisition of Portrait of John F. Kennedy (1967) by American artist Jamie Wyeth (born 1946). One of Wyeth’s most iconic images––and one of the most memorable depictions of the late president––the painting embodies the artist’s immersive approach to portraiture. At 20 years old, Wyeth was approached by Kennedy family members, including Jacqueline and Robert Kennedy, to paint the portrait posthumously. He agreed to create the likeness if he could retain the work––which remained in his private collection until this time. The portrait’s subtle insights and striking detail––such as Kennedy’s distinctive gaze, with one eye looking toward the viewer and the other looking into the distance––make it a remarkable likeness of the late President. The painting is featured in the exhibition Jamie Wyeth, which is on view at the MFA from July 16–December 28, 2014, before traveling throughout the US. The painting is a partial gift of Phyllis and Jamie Wyeth and partial purchase.

“I would like to thank Jamie and his wife Phyllis for their generous gift. We look forward to seeing this moving portrait in our upcoming retrospective,” said Malcolm Rogers, the MFA’s Ann and Graham Gund Director. “It is especially fitting that the first work we acquire by Jamie is this portrayal of Massachusetts’ beloved Senator, who would later become President, and that its home will be the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.”

After the death of John F. Kennedy, members of the Kennedy family approached Wyeth about commissioning an official portrait of the late President for the White House. Wyeth turned down the commission, but agreed to paint an unofficial portrait. Having never met Kennedy in person, Wyeth spent months studying films (including the Zapruder film of Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas), biographies and photographs of JFK in order to immerse himself in his subject. “I wanted the President’s face so engraved on my mind that I could place him in any situation I wanted,” Wyeth told LOOK magazine in 1968. Wyeth also followed Senators Robert and Edward Kennedy on the campaign trail as a means of discerning family traits, gestures and mannerisms. Wyeth produced scores of drawings, depicting every expressive detail of the President’s brothers, and ultimately spent two years on the project as he traveled from Dallas to the US Senate to Hyannis Port, MA, and back to his studio in Chadds Ford, PA. The completed painting was based on a glance Wyeth observed while watching Senator Edward Kennedy campaigning in Rhode Island. The Senator rested his head on his fist while listening to a political advisor, with one eye on his colleague and the other drifting off into the distance.

The acquisition represents the first painting by Wyeth to enter the MFA’s collection, joining 15 works (three paintings, six watercolors and six drawings) by Jamie’s father, artist Andrew Wyeth (1917–2009). The painting complements the Museum’s renowned collection of presidential portraits of George Washington, John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, made by artists such as Gilbert Stuart, John Singleton Copley and Thomas Sully. Additionally, the work joins three photographs and one medal depicting JFK in the Museum’s collection. Museum visitors can see the dramatic photograph John F. Kennedy (1960) by Yousuf Karsh (1908–2002) in the exhibition, Magna Carta: Cornerstone of Liberty (through September 1, 2014).

“Jamie Wyeth’s posthumous Portrait of John F. Kennedy vividly demonstrates his remarkable ability, at such a young age, to distill both a physical likeness and a psychological awareness from a range of sources,” said Elliot Bostwick Davis, the MFA’s John Moors Cabot Chair, Art of the Americas and curator of the exhibition, Jamie Wyeth at the MFA. “We are thrilled that the first work by the artist to enter the Museum’s collection––his iconic portrayal of President Kennedy––adds new resonance to our well-known collection of presidential portraits.”

Wyeth’s realistic likeness of JFK––depicting the President lost in thought, his clenched fist in front of his mouth, and his thumb about to rap his front teeth––was a gesture Jacqueline Kennedy often observed and considered strikingly accurate. However, the portrait was rejected by Robert Kennedy, who felt his brother’s disconcerted look was a painful reminder of his uncertainty during the Cuban Missile Crisis and Bay of Pigs invasion. Ultimately, the official White House commission went to another artist, Gardner Cox of Boston. After Wyeth completed the painting, it hung briefly in the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, and in 1988 it was reproduced on a postage stamp in Ireland. The portrait has also been displayed at the Washington, DC, home of Vice President Joseph Biden.

In a statement, Vice President Biden and Dr. Jill Biden said: “Jamie Wyeth’s portrait of President John F. Kennedy has been one of our favorite pieces of art at the Vice President's Residence. Mounted above the fireplace, the painting was surrounded by photographs of our family through the decades. We always appreciated how President Kennedy’s concentrated gaze, captured in Jamie’s wonderful detail, demonstrates the difficult decisions world leaders face. The portrait served as a symbol of President Kennedy’s extraordinary dedication to public service and education, and his belief that it is our obligation to make the world a better place. We are delighted that everyone visiting the portrait at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, will cherish the painting as much as we did.”

Portrait of John F. Kennedy will be on view at the MFA in the exhibition Jamie Wyeth (July 16–December 28, 2014)––the artist’s first major retrospective. Featuring more than 100 compositions, the exhibition examines six decades of the artist’s career and charts the evolution of his creative process. On view are paintings, works on paper––including a number of sketches for Portrait of John F. Kennedy––and illustrations. The exhibition will travel to three additional venues: Brandywine River Museum of Art, Pennsylvania (January 16–April 5, 2015); San Antonio Museum of Art (April 26–July 5, 2015); and Crystal Bridges Museum of Art, Arkansas (July 23–October 4, 2015). Jamie Wyeth is sponsored by Bank of America. Additional support provided by Mr. & Mrs. Jeffrey E. Marshall, and the Shelly and Michael Kassen Fund.

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