In 1964, Jackie Kennedy had Aaron Shikler, a known New York artist, paint a portrait of her two children. She enjoyed it so much that she asked the painter to commission her official White House portrait, and again liked his work so much that she asked him to create a posthumous portrait of her late husband John F. Kennedy. Shikler recalled of meeting Mrs. Kennedy that he never knew what to expect, she was sometimes vibrant and happy and other times angry. The composition of a deceased President’s portrait was a heavy undertaking, Shikler is reported to have seen a picture of President Kennedy running up the stairs, and liked the position of his head looking down and he combined it with a photograph of the Presidents brother, Ted Kennedy at his graveside, arms crossed.
Saturday morning on our group’s East Wing tour I felt a hush fall as we were leaving the State Dining Room, RPC looked at me and said “Ok Queion I want you to slow down, so when you come out you can turn directly to it…” and there he was up on the wall, our 35th President, head down in thought in a light blue suit with rosy cheeks. His is not harshly defined like the other portraits. light and brush strokes can clearly be seen incorporated in the piece. Youth is very apparent in the figure of JFK, his presidency is often compared to Camelot, the lost kingdom of Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable. His portrait captures a vibrancy and boyishness that is reminiscent of how we think of Arthur, unaware of his royalty and leadership and still a legend in his own right.
Jackie Kennedy’s portrait hangs in the Vermeil room of the first floor above the mantle, like her husband’s it possesses a soft and regal quality that makes it stand out from the others. In it she wears a long straight gown with a ruffled front and looks out gazing toward the left, the future.
These portraits are significant in understanding how we observe the Presidency of JFK, as a turning point of progress and hope as we began to advance ourselves as a country in ways we had not considered. The fear of the unknown, the future, and the weight of contributing to the greatness of our nation could be what causes him to look down. Perhaps Shakespeare said it best, “heavy is the head, that wears the crown”.