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Herbert Abrams, 82; Did Portraits of Dignitaries, Two Presidents

August 31, 2003|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Herbert E. Abrams, one of the country's leading portrait artists whose work includes the official White House portraits of former presidents Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, has died. He was 82.

Abrams, who lived in Warren, Conn., died of cancer Friday in a nursing-care facility in Kent, Conn.

During his 40-year career as a portrait artist known for his traditional realism, Abrams painted many dignitaries, including Gen. William Westmoreland, playwright Arthur Miller and astronaut Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin Jr.

Abrams' portraits hang at the Capitol (former Sen. Howard H. Baker ), the Treasury Department (former Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan), the National Portrait Gallery (Miller) in Washington, D.C., and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point (Westmoreland and Aldrin).

Another portrait of Westmoreland hangs near Abrams' paintings of Gen. Creighton W. Abrams (no relation) and Gen. Bruce Palmer in the Chiefs of Staff Portrait Gallery at the Pentagon.

Others among Abrams' more than 400 portraits hang in statehouses, corporate boardrooms, museums, universities and medical schools across the country.

But for Abrams, there was nothing like being able to immortalize on canvas a major government official, particularly a president.

"It's the top -- something every portrait artist dreams about because the prestige and publicity make it a big prize," he told the New York Times in 1986.

Abrams' White House portrait of Carter, which has been described by a former White House art curator as the best of the contemporary portraits in the White House collection, so impressed George and Barbara Bush that they chose Abrams to paint their official portraits.

Abrams' paintings of the Bushes were unveiled in 1995 at a ceremony hosted by President Clinton in the East Room of the White House, making Abrams the first artist to have portraits in the White House of both a Democratic and a Republican president.

In the portrait, Bush is shown standing in front of a Civil War painting, with his right elbow resting on a globe to represent his interest in foreign policy.

When the painting was unveiled, Bush smiled modestly and said, "I'm inclined to think it's pretty darn good."Much to Barbara Bush's disappointment, Abrams refused to let her hold her dog Millie in her lap during her sitting.

"Millie, I tried," Abrams remembered Mrs. Bush saying sadly to her beloved dog.

Abrams painted the former first lady seated in front of a bookcase with yellow roses on her left -- and a photo of Millie on her right.

Abrams' portrait of Carter, hung in the White House in 1983 during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, did not receive similar attention.

"There was a good reason for that," Lois, Abrams' wife of 49 years, told The Times on Friday. "The Carters and the Reagans did not have a good relationship, and so that was really unveiled with very little fanfare."

The Carter portrait shows him in a contemplative mood with hands folded and elbows resting on the arms of a red damask-upholstered, early 19th century French empire chair.

"It looks just like him," Carter's mother, Lillian, said at the time.

Abrams later revealed that Carter never actually posed in the chair depicted in the painting. The chair is one of a pair in the Red Room of the White House, which Abrams had once seen and taken a picture of during a White House tour.

During his sittings for Abrams, Carter actually sat in an armchair from his own kitchen in Plains, Ga.

Lois Abrams, who handled her husband's public relations and was his business manager, said that depending on a subject's schedule, it might take Abrams three to six months to complete a portrait. But during that time, she said, he could be working on two to four other paintings.

After receiving a commission, Abrams would ask for an informal hourlong chat with his subject.

"It helps get a feeling of the inner person, and also helps to get over any awe that might be there on either side," he once said.

In Carter's case, Abrams observed the former president teaching his Sunday school class in Plains, then returned to Carter's home to chat.

He'd usually require three sittings: a two-hour session followed by two one-hour appointments.

A good portraitist, Abrams believed, must have the courage to paint as he thinks he should to capture the essence of a person's personality.

"No one tells me what to do," he told the New York Times in 1994. "If I get what I like, I think they'll like it too."

In the 1950s, Abrams was selling paintings off a bench in Greenwich Village and considering himself fortunate to receive $35 for an occasional portrait. By 1994, he was painting about 10 portraits a year that ranged in price from $10,000 to $35,000 each.

The ninth of 10 children, Abrams was born in Greenfield, Mass., on March 20, 1921. His German immigrant father had a dairy farm that went bankrupt during the Depression and the family moved to Hartford, where the senior Abrams, unable to find a factory job, sold fruits and vegetables from a pushcart.

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