Few things ignite curiosity in me more than a portrait; a telling gaze, a beguiling smirk, a sumptuous setting all invite inquisitiveness. Aaron Shikler’s portraits are no exception, I’ve long admired his classically beautiful renditions that give the viewer so much more than a pleasant composition. Whether or not you are familiar with the work of Aaron Shikler, I hope you find this post interesting; I am positively fascinated with the tidbits behind his pieces! He was a prolific artist, a documenter of American history armed with charcoals, pastels, oils and canvases. He had sit before him the likes of US presidents, Hollywood starlets, titans of industry and pillars of society. Shikler passed away at the age of 93 in November of 2015 bequeathing to us an artistic legacy to treasure. Let’s have a look see, shall we?
His career as an artist would reach new heights when Jane Engelhard, the wife of industrialist Charles W. Engelhard Jr., took a liking to his work in the Manhattan gallery of Davis and Langdale. She commissioned a portrait of herself and proved to be an excellent patron, having a hand in the subsequent commissions of Lady Bird Johnson and the Duchess of Windsor.
It wasn’t long before former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy was commissioning Shikler to paint her children. These studies of Jacqueline, Caroline and John Jr. paint Shikler as “a practiced observer, settling for a view of the sitter that is easygoing, tenderhearted and the reverse of unsettling.” (John Russell, from a 1979 review in the New York Times)
“Anyone could paint her prettiness, I wanted to paint the haunted look in her eyes. She has this great inner passion, but it’s so strongly controlled. I tried to show in the hands that tension; stiffly under control but ready to coil out. Anyone could have made a languid lady out of her but that’s not what she’s like” Shinkler told the Washington Post in 1971. It now hangs in the Vermeil Room of the White House.
Having only seen him from a distance once, he worked from pictures cobbled together of JFK’s face and Ted Kennedy’s body. The end result was a pensive study of Kennedy that drew some criticism for its melancholy undertones. Shikler responded to negative comments by saying that he felt it was important to depict a thinking president. These two incredibly iconic White House portraits would set the stage for a commission from Time Magazine to paint then president-elect Ronald Reagan for their 1980 “Man of the Year” cover.
During the short 90 minute sitting session, both Reagan and his aide fell asleep leaving Shikler no choice but to loudly scratch furniture on the floor to rouse the president-elect from his untimely slumber. Just awoken, Reagan stood up, hands in his back pockets, and that’s the pose that Shikler captured. Ronald Reagan wasn’t the first Hollywood face he had painted and there were many sparkling socialites in between. Below are some dazzling portraits of society’s most talked about ladies.
A 1982 portrait of Gloria Vanderbilt seen here in her NYC apartment. Shinkler had wanted to depict her barefoot but she protested as she wanted her pretty shoes immortalized in paint too. She regretted the decision afterward.
You can find Shikler’s work in renown museums, the White House, private collections and up for sale at auction mainstays like Christie’s and ArtNet. Next time you spot an incredible portrait, take a closer look at the signature, it may just be an original Aaron Shikler!
P.S. If you’re hankering for more than just a piece of art by Shikler, his fabulous NYC apartment is for sale.