spacer John F. Kennedy John F. Kennedy (1917-1963)
Thirty-fifth President (1961-1963)

When an assassin's bullet cut short John Kennedy's presidency in November 1963, the country experienced a collective sense of loss that it had not known since the death of Lincoln. But the grief was not so much inspired by a long litany of presidential accomplishments as it was an expression of what Kennedy had come to represent. To be sure, his administration could claim notable triumphs in foreign policy, including its successful face-off with the Soviets over the presence of missiles in Cuba. Its support for the civil rights movement had, moreover, contributed significantly to a climate that would soon give birth to landmark legislation promoting racial equality. The main source of grief over Kennedy's death, however, was the eloquence and vigorous idealism that he had brought to his presidency and that made him, in the eyes of many, the embodiment of this country's finest aspirations.

When artist Elaine de Kooning arranged for sittings with Kennedy in late 1962, she intended to complete a single portrait, destined for the Harry S. Truman Library. But, fascinated with the changeability of Kennedy's features, she instead painted an entire series of likenesses, including the full-length image here. In its loose, almost chaotic brushwork, the portrait bears witness to de Kooning's close identification with the Abstract Expressionists of the 1950s.


Elaine de Kooning (1918-1989)
Oil on canvas, 1963
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
© Elaine de Kooning Trust
NPG.99.75

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John F. Kennedyspacer John F. Kennedy on the campaign trail for congressional candidates

The handsome John Kennedy was politics' answer to the matinee idol, and crowd response to him verged at times on frenzy. Heightening this phenomenon was Kennedy's own zestful reaction to it, and the photograph here by New York Times photographer George Tames offers a glimpse into how the chemistry between the idol-President and his fans worked. Tames took the picture at the airport in Pierre, South Dakota, in August 1962. Kennedy had just arrived to promote the election of Senate candidate George McGovern. After accepting a welcome from local officials, Kennedy was soon striding off toward an airport fence to conduct more important business a round of handshaking with some of the several thousand admirers who were craning for a glimpse of him.


George Tames (1919-1994)
Gelatin silver print, 1962
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Gift of Frances O. Tames
© George Tames/New York Times Pictures
NPG.94.242

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John F. Kennedyspacer John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office

On February 10, 1961, photographer George Tames was allowed to spend the entire working day with the recently inaugurated Kennedy, and the best of the resulting pictures became a visual essay in the New York Times Magazine, titled "A Day in the Life of John F. Kennedy." Among the images included was this picture taken in the White House Oval Office a little after 5:00 p.m., showing Kennedy poring over a newspaper. The standing position was typical of Kennedy who frequently felt the need to rise from his chair to ease his chronic back pain.

Kennedy had a shrewd sense for which imagery worked best with the public. Thus, when Tames let him preview the picture essay's final layout, he recognized immediately that this faceless, shadowed portrait with its sense of quiet isolation conveyed the gravity of the presidency in a way that few other pictures could. Upon spotting it in its relatively unfeatured position, he declared that this was the image that, above all others, should have been carried on the magazine's cover.


George Tames (1919-1994)
Gelatin silver print, 1961
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Gift of Frances O. Tames
© George Tames/New York Times Pictures
NPG.94.189

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