A Portrait of an Artist

Late one evening last week I sat in a small room I had rented for the night in the historic National Arts Club just off Gramercy Park. The venerable old club is one of my favorite stops in New York City and I treasure my membership there. It is filled with paintings, antique furniture, and a remarkable collection of artifacts both decorative and exotic—it’s a magical place. No matter how often I visit, it has the effect of stepping through the wardrobe, similar to a C.S. Lewis novel, into another world removed from the modern city just outside it’s interior.

This night, I had stopped for a brief stay as I traveled back home from an exciting journey to Paris.  As the clock struck 11:00 pm, I sat comfortably nestled in an old armchair near a well-worn fireplace, the room dimly lit, and the air scented with a combination of stale chimney smoke and a newly varnished wood floor. Across from me— in a twin chair to my own— sat my mentor, hero, and friend Everett Raymond Kinstler. America’s preeminent painter of portraits had dropped by for a visit and for the last two hours we had shared stories of clients, travels, and our favorite topic of all—painting.

Nearly synonymous with the National Arts Club, Mr. Kinstler has lived and worked there for more than six decades. As usual, throughout the conversation I was hanging on his every word.  I listened intently to the stories and wisdom of a man who has made art his life, now enjoying his seventieth year as a full time artist.  Yes, 70 years!

It is never lost on me how incredibly lucky I am, “blessed” really (a word Mr. Kinstler prefers over “luck”) to spend time with this incredibly talented man and to have been learning “at the feet” of a master for the past 20 years.

As we sat and talked, I began to reflect on a recent portrait I had painted of him.  I was making one more pass, one more series of observations before I counted my picture officially finished.  As is normal for me, and most of the artists I know, I began to worry if I had captured something of the man on canvas.  I had felt this way before on many portraits, but it was especially true of this one.  Not only because I was portraying a person who means so much to me both personally and professionally, but also simply because his personality is so very large, so intense, so focused that my small 24″x30″ canvas simply paled in comparison even before I placed the first brush stroke on it’s surface.

Unaware that my mind had turned for a moment to despair about my picture of him, Mr. Kinstler began to reflect on his own work in the studio and the unrest that he felt over a recent, nearly completed portrait.  He had been pushing himself, digging and digging at the painting as he attempted to wring out every ounce of his power and skill onto the canvas.  The last sitting with the client was to take place in the studio the following morning and he was re-evaluating his specific goals for the portrait and his last opportunity to review the subject from life.

It suddenly occurred to me that this was the state of all artists no matter how long they had been working!  After more than two thousand commissioned portraits and countless other pictures in his lifetime as an artist, Mr. Kinstler, like all of us, is still looking for something more.  It reminded me of a quote I had read on my trip across the Atlantic only a few days before in the wonderful Hart-Davis biography of Phillip de Laszo.  At that moment, I pulled out the book from my bag, found the passage, and read the following lines aloud to my great mentor.  As I read, he gazed at the floor and shook his head slowly in agreement.

Writing in her diary, Mrs. de Laszlo recorded in part:

“Yesterday he {Phillip de Laszlo} finished the portrait of the Speaker. He is not quite pleased with it. His art makes him suffer so, really much more than I realise….Always this dissatisfaction…. If a picture is still in progress, one is always hopeful. How little I can do to help an artist to suffer less… he would not be so great [an artist) if he suffered less.”

No matter how long I work at my portrait of Mr. Kinstler, or any of my pictures for that matter, I realize I am never going to be completely “satisfied”.  In the end, it is actually quite healthy— this state of unrest.  Only those who feel contentment with their work will cease to learn and grow.  As the great illustrator James Montgomery Flagg famously said, “Once you have arrived, you have no place else to go!”.

It was getting very late and it was time for Mr. Kinstler to return to his studio apartment and get some well-deserved rest.  His packed schedule began early the following morning and would have stressed any artist half his age.  As we said goodnight we gave each other a solid hug complete with affirming pats on the back.  At that very moment I decided my picture was finished or as Robert Henri said, I had found “a good place to stop.” The portrait is a memory, a record of this time and this place in my life as an artist and a protégé of Everett Raymond Kinstler.

As I watched him slowly walk down the hall, I knew that tomorrow we’d both go at it again with every picture in our studio.  We will step into the ring, put on the gloves and duke it out with each new canvas.  I smiled as one of my favorite Kinstler scenes came to mind—performed for me many times before—with a pronounced stagger in my direction, leaning onto my nearest shoulder and saying with a gasp and a grin… “What round is it champ?!!”.


Michael Shane Neal, Artist

15 May 2012