fb-pixel Skip to main content

Aaron Shikler, 93; painted portraits of presidents

Aaron Shikler worked in his midtown New York studio in 1971.Associated Press/File

NEW YORK — Aaron Shikler, an artist whose portraits of America’s economic, political, and social elite included a brooding John F. Kennedy, a sorrowful Jacqueline Kennedy, and a buoyant Ronald Reagan in jeans and work shirt, died on Thursday at his home in Manhattan. He was 93.

The death was confirmed by his daughter, Cathy Shikler van Inen.

Jacqueline Kennedy became an admirer of Mr. Shikler after seeing the paintings he had done of the children of actor Peter Lawford and his former wife, Patricia Kennedy Lawford, one of the president’s sisters. In 1967, she asked him to do pastel portraits of her children, Caroline and John, and a group portrait of all three. A commission to do official White House portraits of her and a posthumous one of her husband followed.


Except for one passing glimpse from afar, Mr. Shikler had never seen John Kennedy in person. He studied dozens of photographs and eventually settled on a somber, reflective pose. In the portrait, Kennedy, dressed in a gray suit and blue tie, stands with his arms folded across his chest, his head tilted down.

“I painted him with his head bowed, not because I think of him as a martyr, but because I wanted to show him as a president who was a thinker,” Mr. Shikler told the Washington Post in 1971. “A thinking president is a rare thing.”

Jacqueline Kennedy had made only one demand, he wrote in an article for McCall’s magazine in 1971: “I don’t want him done the way everybody does him — with that puffiness under the eyes and every shadow and crease magnified.”

The painting of Jacqueline Kennedy caused a stir.

The former first lady (by then known as Jacqueline Onassis) and her children had made a secret visit to the White House to see the paintings, their first since John Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963. When some critics complained that the painting was gloomy and unheroic, Mr. Shikler had an answer. “I said the hell with it,” he told People magazine in 1981. “Mrs. Kennedy loved the idea, I loved the idea, and it certainly stands out among all those God-forsaken postage-stamp portraits hanging in the White House.”


Aaron Abraham Shikler was born on Nov. 12, 1922, in Brooklyn. He enrolled in the Tyler School of Art at Temple University in Philadelphia. But in 1943 he was drafted into the Army Air Corps and sent to the European theater as a mapmaker.

He returned to Tyler after the war, earning bachelor’s degrees in art and education in 1947 and a master’s degree in fine art the next year. In 1947, he married Barbara Lurie, a fellow art student, who died in 1998. In addition to his daughter, Mr. Shikler leaves a son, Clifford, and five grandchildren.

For three years after leaving Tyler, Mr. Shikler studied in New York with abstract painter Hans Hofmann, but he remained a committed realist, under the sway of such artists as Degas, Vuillard, Sickert, and Sargent. Describing his paintings of the Kennedys, he told the Post in 1971, “Both portraits are straight American representational, tempered by a vast study of European tradition.”

To make a living, he painted clowns and ballerinas for a wholesale company, signing the work “Phil I. Steen” to register his disgust. When Leroy Davis, an Army friend, opened the Davis Gallery in Manhattan in 1953, he began showing Mr. Shikler’s work, which included figure studies, still lifes, and landscapes. He remained with the gallery, now Davis and Langdale, for the rest of his life, often showing with his Tyler friend David Levine, the caricaturist.


A turning point came in 1959 when Jane Engelhard, the wife of industrialist Charles W. Engelhard Jr., asked Mr. Shikler to paint her portrait. She became one of his most important patrons, commissioning portraits of Lady Bird Johnson, the Duchess of Windsor, and Mike Mansfield, the Senate majority leader.

He had a sure if genteel touch, and a keen sense of the play of light on surfaces, that infused his paintings with mood and a sense of presence that flattered his subjects. In a 1979 review for The New York Times, John Russell characterized Mr. Shikler’s portrait work as “easygoing, tender-hearted, and the reverse of unsettling.”

That was not quite the case with his portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy, which depicted her in front of a fireplace in her Fifth Avenue apartment, her elongated figure and grave expression reflecting the artist’s first impression of her, described in his McCall’s article, as “a woman of almost spooky beauty and extraordinary inner tension.”

It was a little too spooky for Richard M. Nixon. “He felt that Jacqueline had been depicted as a mournful, wraithlike figure,” the Nixon aide John D. Ehrlichman told Art News in 1982. He added, “The portrait was depressing and reminiscent of JFK’s assassination, and for a time Nixon wondered if it could be put away out of sight.” Fear of bad publicity kept the painting where it was.


In 1980, Time magazine commissioned Mr. Shikler to paint Reagan for the cover of its Man of the Year issue. He was given just 90 minutes in which to do preliminary studies, during which the president fell asleep. The portrait showed the president, hands tucked into the back pockets of his jeans, wearing a Western belt and a blue work shirt.

In 1988 the White House Historical Association commissioned Mr. Shikler to paint official portraits of Reagan and his wife. The portrait of Nancy Reagan, in a striking red dress, went smoothly, but Mr. Shikler and the Reagans went back and forth over his portrait of her husband. A first version had to be scrapped. The final version, showing the president standing in front of his desk in the Oval Office, hung briefly in the White House but went into storage in 1991, quietly replaced by another official portrait, by Everett Raymond Kinstler.

Famous or not, Mr. Shikler was still an artist trying to please a patron. “The portrait painter, you know, is stuck somewhere in there among the couturier, the hairdresser, and the masseuse,” he told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1989.