In the library at Kykuit is a portrait of Lincoln by Joseph Alexander Ames done in February, 1865, shortly before the assassination. It is one of the few that were done from life (the drawing stage) rather than from a photo.
His hair looks a touch wild; he was no doubt too busy to care about it (this, we all know, would not be acceptable at all on the modern political scene).
George Washington is also here, in a Gilbert Stuart that the artist probably copied from his own work now in the Athenaeum. There is a John Hoppner portrait of Judith Beresford; bright rouge spots are one of the artist’s trademarks. Hoppner was an English painter who studied under Sir Joshua Reynolds. A Sir Thomas Lawrence portrait of Elizabeth Dickey (Mrs. John Gordon) depicts her in a white dress with warm amber shadows. Her lips are a lush dark pink and her hair and eyes are softly brown with amber highlights. She is looking off in the distance beyond our right shoulder. The feeling is contentment but the expression is serious. Traditional portraits are generally serious, perhaps because the process of sitting for one is seriously difficult. Compare this painting, when you go to the Met, with Lawrence’s portrait of Elizabeth Farren (done in 1790), an elegant and lively standing figure also in a white dress.
In JDR’s office there is a fine oil of Ben Franklin which is a replica of a painting in the White House by David Martin. Jackie Kennedy found the original and brought it to the White House, and in fact spoke about it in her famous TV tour.
Some stars of the collection of modern paintings are: Hirondelle/Amour, a replica of a Miro, the original of which, also owned by Nelson, is in MoMA. Upstairs, where only the Grand tour goes, are paintings considered the finest of the modern paintings: Jackson by James Brooks — an homage to Jackson Pollack, whom he knew. This consists of browns, blacks, blues, and white, in mostly horizontal bands, rather than Pollack’s famous drips.
Bird Woman by Karel Appel, who also has a sculpture on the property. Painted with bright reds, yellows, and blues, it appears to be an abstracted figure with a large bird head taking up most of the top half of the painting, and a humanoid body below.
Number 5 by Bradley Walker Tomlin. The numeral 5 is included several times in the pattern. A fire in the Executive Mansion in Albany when Nelson was governor had destroyed a similar work by this artist as well as several other works.
September 10, 1953 by Pierre Soulages has dark blues and browns with cross-like overlapping shapes that appear to be partially lit from behind.
Downstairs in the gallery are works by Warhol, Motherwell, Hartigan and many others. The stars down here are the Picasso tapestries which were commissioned by Nelson and were woven under Picasso’s direct supervision based on maquettes he made. They are based on paintings which are in various museums, and each has been changed a little from the original. One is struck by the variety, from the cool, simple composition of Girls with a Toy Boat to the active, vivid Night Fishing at Antibes or the cerebral, muted Girl with a Mandolin. There were done over a period of twenty years, with a new one each year.
Kykuit really feels like a home (well, not exactly like my home) as well as a museum and I could image Nelson trying to find the time to go down to the basement to enjoy his latest acquisition. Feeling our way through the temporarily dark areas probably was more of a treat than a problem, because it allowed my artist’s imagination to conjure up the image of coming down through darkened rooms for one last look at the works before bed. We may not be able to do that in reality, but we are lucky to be able to visit.
Ronnie Levine is an artist who owns the Rivertown Painters’ Studio in Tarrytown.