While he sat for a portrait during a visit home last year, the then-U.S. ambassador to Great Britain amused himself by doodling on London embassy stationery. When the session was over, Elliot Richardson gave portraitist Everett Raymond Kinstler his own sketch of the artist. “Frankly,” Ray Kinstler joked, “I think I’m a much better artist than you are.” Richardson replied in mock horror: “I should hope so!”
In fact, Richardson is the most recent of the 19 Cabinet members whose official department portraits have been painted by Kinstler. (Since Richardson has headed up Defense, HEW, Justice and now Commerce, it was difficult to decide where his portrait would hang. The Pentagon got it.)
“I went from Boyd [former Secretary of Transportation Alan S. Boyd] to Wirtz [former Secretary of Labor W. Willard Wirtz],” puns Kinstler, 49. Among other subjects were Treasury Secretaries David Kennedy, John Connally and George Shultz, HEW Secretary Caspar Weinberger, Labor’s Peter J. Brennan and Under Secretary of State George Ball. Kinstler’s work in progress includes Treasury Secretary William Simon, Attorney General Edward Levi and onetime Secretary of Commerce and of the Interior Rogers C.B. Morton, now President Ford’s campaign manager.
A high school dropout in New York City at 15, Kinstler was taken under the wing of James Montgomery Flagg, the famous illustrator who created the Uncle Sam of the “I Want You” recruitment posters. For the next 15 years, Kinstler drew illustrations for pulp magazines and novels and turned out hundreds of comic books, doing such characters as the Shadow, Zorro and Hopalong Cassidy. “You could sell any pulp with the two Cs—cowboys and cleavage,” recalls Kinstler.
Kinstler turned increasingly to portraits in the late 1950s, and in 1963 landed his first important commission: astronauts Alan Shepard Jr. and Scott Carpenter. His first Cabinet portrait, of onetime Agriculture Secretary Orville Freeman, was in 1968. Today Kinstler charges up to $8,000 per portrait, and requires his subject to pose for four three-hour sessions.
Is he an official favorite in Washington because his portraits tend to be flattering? “The question of flattery is a tough one,” concedes the artist. “When I first met former Secretary of the Army Robert Froehlke, he laid it on the line: ‘I’m losing my hair, my ears stick out and my wife says you should paint me from the back,’ he told me. ‘Now what are you going to do about it?’ ” (The resulting portrait was not particularly flattering.)
Not everyone is totally satisfied with the results at first. Admiral David McDonald, chief of naval operations from 1963 to 1967, agreed to break tradition and be painted in a khaki uniform instead of dress blues, but objected to being portrayed with his left hand in his pocket. “He complained that it was against Navy regulations,” smiles Kinstler, “until I showed him several photographs of him in exactly the same position.”