The Capital's Court Painter: Greta Kempton

Andréa Fernandes

This Sunday will mark the 106th (or 108th, according to some sources) birthday of Greta Kempton (1903-1991). The Austrian-American artist is most known for her portraits of the Truman family, such as the one shown above.

1. Greta Kempton was well-received by critics and the public during her lifetime. She was described as "the Capital's Court Painter," "an American Da Vinci," and the "world's greatest living portrait artist." During the Truman administration, she is believed to have made approximately $150,000 in commissions. Her one-woman show at the Corcoran Gallery in 1949 "attracted more visitors than any exhibition by a living artist."

2. With a clientele comprised of the heads of Hollywood studios, producers, and politicians, Kempton maintained a high profile. She dressed in cocktail party attire when painting portraits to show the utmost respect for her subjects. The American public viewed her as one of the country's best-dressed women.

3. As the official White House artist during the Truman administration, Kempton painted 5 portraits of President Truman, as well a portraits of his wife, his daughter, and the family together. On Truman as a subject, Kempton said, "We never lacked conversation because he took my work seriously and had limitless curiosity about my technique"¦ I found him a good subject from a painter's point of view. He had expressive blue eyes, clear-cut features and the kind of fair skin that reflects the light."

4. Kempton's portrait services were requested by other presidents as well, but she always refused. She was asked at least 4 times to paint a portrait of Dwight D. Eisenhower when he was the president-elect. In the 1960s, she was also asked to paint Lyndon B. Johnson, but refused "out of her devotion and friendship to the Trumans."

5. While Kempton showed talent from an early age, her painting career didn't come easy. At one point, she supposedly sold picture postcards on New York City streets to make ends meet for her and her daughter. As Kempton said, "I fought like a lion to paint." She continued to paint until well into her 80s.

A larger version of the Truman family portrait is available here. Fans should check out Kempton's official Web site; Bradley and Bauske's interview with Kempton; Missouri's photos of Kempton and her work; her portrait of Bess Truman; and these photos: Kempton and Margaret Truman, portrait of Kempton, and Kempton painting. "Feel Art Again" appears every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. You can e-mail us at with details of current exhibitions, for sources or further reading, or to suggest artists.