When you look at the gallery of presidential portraits, one stands out: that of John F Kennedy. While other Presidents faced towards the audience and assume a confident, even overbearing demeanor, the typically dazzling JFK is instead portrayed as withdrawn, pensive. His body folds inwards, his crossed arms distance himself from the viewer. His eyes are closed, head tilted towards the floor, as if he fell asleep standing or is deep in thought over some issue. The portrait makes the viewer feel like a trespasser, disturbing some sacred privacy that must have been so rare for him during his presidency. The portrait exists in that fragile balance. You fear that the moment he recognizes your presence, the suspension would drop, and he would expertly resume his professional impersonation of a politician; defaulting to his rehearsed smile, buffing his chest outwards, and extending a polite hand for a handshake. The figure would vanished, leaving behind a casting of a man.
The portrait tries, and I think succeeds, in separating the person from the presidency. The portrait chooses to present a candid image of JFK instead of regurgitating the widely celebrated icon of a dashing young man with a picture-perfect family. The muted brown concentrates the viewer’s focus solely on John F. Kennedy the person, without allusions to his position. There are none of the typical indicators of the presidency; no flags, no White House, no oval desk, or any other objects that would have distracted from the central subject. His downward gaze makes the portrait more authentic and natural because Kennedy is not erecting a facade for the viewer. The portrait captures him at his most genuine and vulnerable state. This is who he was, not what he pretended to be.
I have a print of the portrait pinned to the cork board behind my desk. Sometimes my eyes would wander until it fixates on the print, and my brain would closely follow. I would try to contextualize and place the image within a historical event during his presidency like the Cuban Missile Crisis, or the March on Washington, or the beginnings of US intervention in Vietnam. Regardless of when and where, it just fits in. I’m always astonished by the honesty and humility of the portrait despite the weight of the subject. At its simplest and boldest, the portrait offers the view across a small crack in the grand veil of American public life.