Aaron Shikler

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The New York Sun

The death last week of Aaron Shikler is a sad moment for those who cherish the hope that classical painting will survive the era of abstraction. Shikler, who slipped away Thursday at the age of 93, was part of a group of painters from New York who’d challenged abstract expressionism. They included, among others, David Levine, Daniel Bennett Schwartz, Harvey Dinnerstein, Sheldon Fink, and Burt Silverman. There were few more fabulous than Shikler, whose painting of a pensive John Fitzgerald Kennedy is one of the most famous portraits in the White House.

What marked Shikler and the group with which he is associated was their skill at draftsmanship, their commitment to maintaining classical techniques, and their courage in persevering despite the sneering — even hostility — of contemporary critics. That manifested itself in 1961, when the group put up at the National Arts Club a show called “A Realist View.” Despite rejection in the bien passant salons, the members of the group stuck with their art, going on to important careers. Shikler and a number of others participated for decades in a Wednesday evening circle known as the Painting Group.

In 2007, the group marked its 50th anniversary by inviting Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to sit — an event that was covered for the Sun by Kate Tayler (now of the Times). She quoted David Levine, a caricaturist as skilled as any since Daumier and also a masterful painter, as calling Shikler “my mentor.” The portraits resulting from the O’Connor sitting resulted in a show at the National Portrait Gallery, where the Justice quipped that the experience taught her that we don’t really know what the American Founders looked like.

We’d respectfully dissent and cite, among other canvases, Shikler’s painting of JFK. The portrait was done posthumously, and Shikler was chosen to paint it by Jacqueline Kennedy herself. Shikler didn’t like being known as a portrait painter. “When I hear the term ‘Mr. Shikler the portrait painter,’ I cringe,” he told Ms. Taylor. Yet Mrs. Kennedy chose wisely. Shikler’s portrait captures unmistakably the body language, the color, and the gracefulness of the fallen president. Shikler’s equally elegant portrait of Mrs. Kennedy also hangs in the White House.

By an odd coincidence, an email with news of Shikler’s death reached us as we were standing in the National Gallery of Art in front of Gilbert Stuart’s painting of James Madison and thinking about the power of great portrait painters. Not long before David Levine died he remarked to us that there are young painters today who think of him and the others as “gods.” He didn’t mean it in the blasphemous sense, and we wouldn’t want to carry the metaphor too far. But Shikler, who like the others understood they were not gods, did have an ability to bestow a kind of immortality for which our nation will be grateful for generations to come.

The New York Sun

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