The Franklin D. Roosevelt American Heritage Museum, located in the historic Union Station, Worcester, Massachusetts, is pleased to announce the acquisition of a major art collection related to President Franklin D. Roosevelt: Madame Elizabeth Shoumatoff's watercolor proof studies for her famous unfinished portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt, executed in FDR's final hours. Shown above is one of the portraits of FDR in this precious art collection, and the last finished portrait of President Roosevelt before his death on April 12, 1945 in Warm Springs, Georgia.
These are the most storied and famous images of a sitting President in the history of the Presidency of the United States.
These three watercolors from the estate of Elizabeth Shoumatoff are the painter's equivalent of a writer's outline, a rough draft of a novel's opening paragraphs. Used to think out matters of color, composition, and depth, they allowed the artist to map her painting before putting her brush to the final canvas. These stunning images of FDR were created over the three days that Shoumatoff spent as FDR's guest in Warm Springs, Georgia in April, 1945, the last three days of President Roosevelt's life. Certainly she used them when making the two portraits of FDR she executed after 1945, one which she donated to the Little White House, and the other which she created at the request of Lyndon Johnson for the Executive Mansion in Washington in 1967.
Each watercolor is archivally matted and framed in goldleaf, and each of the three watercolor proof studies of FDR is progressively more detailed, the third being a magnificent finished likeness to FDR in his last days, wearing his naval cape and grasping a scroll in his left hand. The first two watercolors framed measure 16 ˝ x 24," and the third measures 20 ˝ x 24 ˝." These historic watercolors not only give us glimpses into the artist's conception of the final work, but also give testimony to a remarkable friendship that sprang up quickly-yet deeply-between artist and subject. Shoumatoff was FDR's sort of woman: well-born, worldly, attractive, pleasant and good humored, but for Shoumatoff, a Republican, Roosevelt was hardly a knight in shining armor. Prior to 1943, she only knew the public actor, the bane of the business class, whom Shoumatoff had been painting for over twenty years since her arrival in America as a refugee from Bolshevik terror. Her family of émigrés had all made it big in America. Her husband-before he drowned in a swimming accident in the late 1920s-had become an executive in the Sikorsky aviation company while her brother, himself a painter and a lepidopterist, became curator of the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. They blended easily into the social and political world of the conservative upper class, and it was while summering in the Catskills in the early 1920s, that Shoumatoff first rubbed elbows with America's leading capitalists, and began painting them and their families. She soon built herself quite a successful career painting the economic royalists – Fords, Fricks, Kodaks, Mellons, five whole generations of Firestones – and she no doubt heard many an anti-Roosevelt uttering out of the mouths of her subjects during sittings. She liked to keep her subjects animated, it kept their faces lively, and discussing that man in the White House was sure to bring color to corporate cheeks.
So Madame Shoumatoff was taken aback one day in 1943 when her friend and client Lucy Mercer Rutherford said to her, "You should really paint the President. He has such a remarkable face. There is no painting of him that gives his true expression. I think you could do a wonderful portrait, and he would be such an interesting person to paint! Would you do a portrait of him if it was arranged?" Aside from worrying whether FDR would sit for a rock-ribbed Republican, Shoumatoff was uneasy about the rumors she had heard – that Lucy had been FDR's mistress many years before. Would an artist commissioned by the President's former love really be allowed to paint the chief magistrate? "You know him then?" was Shoumatoff's first, anxious response. "Oh, very well," Lucy replied. "Tell me," Shoumatoff said, "is he sincere?" Very much, Lucy assured her. Sensing that Lucy would smooth the way, Shoumatoff overcame her hesitancy – Presidential commissions didn't come along every day, after all – and she agreed. Lucy called the White House and made the arrangements. Roosevelt would sit for two days, in two weeks time. "There was no backing out," Shoumatoff recalled thinking. "I was trapped into something I had neither wished for nor planned." When she arrived at the White House two weeks later and "saw his smile and the familiar voice, I knew that Lucy must have spoken well of me…. He was very cheerful and perfectly unconcerned about the whole thing."
Shoumatoff "perched rather uncomfortably" in a chair next to him and started to sketch. FDR began telling the story of an earlier sitting he gave to a Mexican artist, who posed him alongside a roaring fireplace – fireside chats was the theme – and "there I was," Roosevelt said, "sitting by a fireplace with two little cactus plants on the side for Mexican atmosphere, and the red glow of the fire reflecting on my face. All I could name it was Roosevelt in Hell!" That broke the ice. Shoumatoff then told her story of the devout painter who, after painting Pope Leo XIII, asked his subject to inscribe some appropriate scriptural phrase on the canvas. The pontiff, pausing for a moment at the likeness, chose, "It is I. Be not afraid." Shoumatoff hoped that would not be necessary in this case. They were soon fast friends, laughing and swapping stories-Shoumatoff's Russian background reminded FDR of the ingrate royalty he rescued from Europe, who then expected to live high on the hog, at government expense, in America. Had Shoumatoff ever heard the story of how Roosevelt once punched out a Prussian officer on a train to Berlin? He regaled her with the tale (Mother Roosevelt wanted the window open, Prussian wanted it closed, Franklin to the rescue). Shoumatoff – her political and personal anxieties long since fled – now felt free enough to joke about the President's clothes. Too bad his gray suit and blue tie were so dull. Dramatic clothing she wanted? The President knew just the thing and called for the famous Brooks Brothers navy cape, a perfect addition, but now the time for the sitting was up.
They resumed the following day, Shoumatoff so at ease that she forgot her identification, and was surprised to be stopped at the White House gate (Tully vouched her). She and FDR smoked and chatted. Somehow religion came up – Shoumatoff was an exceedingly devout Orthodox Christian – and Roosevelt delightedly told the story of how he had mercilessly teased Maxim Litvinoff about his atheism. The folds and details in the cape were requiring a lot of attention, and she begged the President for a third day's sitting. He agreed to cut his next day's lunch hour in half and Shoumatoff realized a stand-in could model the cape just as well, so White House Communications Director, William D. Simmons was volunteered to sit, freeing Shoumatoff to devote the third day exclusively to Roosevelt's face. Overall, Shoumatoff was pleased with the finished work. It was small, 10 x 12," at Roosevelt's request, and she had chosen to avoid the familiar image of the jaunty smile, thinking "an expression of earnest seriousness…more desirable." But she later agreed with the judgment of Bill Hassett, and others, that the first portrait was "too pretty." It was also too static, and missed something of the force and dynamism of Roosevelt's character. The playfulness and liveliness of the sittings had not quite made it onto the canvas. Others thought it too small, and Roosevelt agreed to someday commission a second, larger portrait from Shoumatoff, for the White House or Hyde Park. The President invited Shoumatoff and her brother Andrey to lunch at Hyde Park in July, and it was now Andrey's turn to lose his political and personal misgivings in the face of Roosevelt's disarming charm. The two men discovered a common interest in the occult. Andrey was struck by the bust of Nicholas Roerich, a famous Russian spiritualist, which he saw perched on Roosevelt's shelf. Long after the visit, Roosevelt and Andrey would exchange letters about Russian iconography. In mid-March 1945, after making one of her discreet visits to the White House, Lucy Rutherford reported to Shoumatoff that "there was somebody who asked very much about you" during her trip. Shoumatoff wondered aloud about that second portrait, and Lucy said, somewhat ominously, "if this portrait is to be painted, it should not be postponed."
Shoumatoff knew the President was in poor health, but she was still shocked when she saw him in Greenville, Georgia, just outside of Warm Springs, late on the afternoon of Monday, April 9, 1945. Shoumatoff herself was not in the best of conditions that day. She had had a long, difficult two-day drive down from New York in the company of her photographer, Nicholas Robbins, a fussy, eccentric man, but a reliable collaborator and fellow Russian émigré whom Shoumatoff had used often. "He was a character," Shoumatoff remembered, "and I always felt guilty for getting irritated with him and for making fun of him." They picked up Lucy at Aiken South Carolina, headed for Warm Springs, and promptly got lost. Roosevelt had planned to meet them at Macon at 4 o'clock, but they were hours late, Shoumatoff's nerves fraying by the second – she had given up smoking for Lent – chomping on candies and barely able to suppress her anger at Robbins's constant chatter and misguided directions. No one was there at Macon when they finally arrived so they kept on towards Warm Springs, turning a corner into Greenville, where they saw Roosevelt in his car, surrounded by a small crowd, sipping on a Coca-Cola bottle. Roosevelt's face lit up at the site of Lucy, but Shoumatoff's heart sank at the President's haggard appearance. "My first thought was: how could I make a portrait of such a sick man." Roosevelt's spirits were better than his appearance, and at dinner on the 9th he delighted the table with his Churchill imitation. When someone asked about Stalin he said "he was quite a jolly fellow. But I am convinced he poisoned his wife!" The sitting for the final portrait began on the morning of Tuesday, the 10th. Shoumatoff had no idea how she wanted to pose him, and when she went downstairs to see him at noon, her consternation was heightened by finding Roosevelt sitting with Tully and Lucy outside on the patio. "We thought this location might be better for your painting," Tully said. But Shoumatoff hated outdoor painting, the light was all wrong. Yet Roosevelt seemed so relaxed she didn't want to move him back indoors just for her sake, so she made a go of it, later reflecting that she might have made more progress – perhaps even completed the portrait – if she had not been thrown off stride by the outdoor sitting on the first day: "if it had not been for that moment of weakness," as she later put it. The portrait is indeed more finished than unfinished, and Wendell Parks of the FDR Library thinks the "relative completeness" of the work suggests that Shoumatoff worked on it in-between sittings on the 10th and the 11th. Roosevelt gave her a couple of hours each of those mornings, and the rest of the time she would have consulted the photos Robbins took for her on the morning of the 10th. She thought the first batch that Robbins shot came out "terrible" so she "begged" FDR to sit for another set of shots on the 11th. The pose and the arrangement in our watercolors matches those of the shots Robbins took on the 10th: FDR in his cape, holding a scroll symbolizing the UN Charter. This gives credence to the view that our watercolors may have been created on April 10th or April 11th, before Shoumatoff had to hand the second batch of photos Robbins shot, which had Roosevelt sitting in his study, without the cape or scroll, wearing his double-breasted gray suit.
Those poignant last photos show the weak, slightly vacant expression on FDR's face. His poor health cast a pall over the entire week, and just as Roosevelt's ill-fated trip back from Yalta was filled with death and tragedy, so too did an air of dark foreboding hover behind the warmth and relaxation of those final days in Warm Springs. On the 11th, Shoumatoff learned that her brother Andrey had suffered a heart attack. Henry Morgenthau's wife and Anna Roosevelt's son were both gravely sick that trip as well, and one of Lucy's stepsons had been wounded in action and was recovering in an army hospital. When Shoumatoff awoke on the morning of the 12th, she turned, as was her custom, to a book of religious reflections. The "Daily Word" for April 12, 1945 counseled, "If circumstances look foreboding, if events seem to follow a course that could be disastrous to my best interests, I should have no fear." When she went downstairs Roosevelt was signing documents, with Bill Hassett hovering his shoulder. Papers already signed were spread across the floor for the ink to dry, "my laundry," Roosevelt called it. Shoumatoff offered to postpone that day's sitting. "Oh no," FDR replied, "I'll be through in a few moments and will be ready for you." She thought "he looked cheerful and full of pep," and later resented Hassett's claims that the artist fussed her subject too much that morning, tilting his head this way and that, raising the President's stress level. But Roosevelt was relaxed throughout. She "started, as usual, with the eyes." At times his gaze got distracted, even a little vacant, and Shoumatoff tried to rally his attention with a surefire gambit: stamps. Had he seen the new India issue? "In a little while the eyes were placed and a familiar expression began to show. But it was not quite the look I was accustomed to during the past few days. The President seemed so absorbed, with the papers or something else, that when he would look up at my request, his gaze had a faraway aspect and was completely solemn." He brightened momentarily when Lucy or Margaret Suckley would say something from their perch on the couch, off to the side. Someone brought in a glass of green medicine. What on earth was that for, Shoumatoff asked. "To increase appetite," was Roosevelt's laconic reply. When the butler brought in a bowl of oatmeal a few minutes later, however, he waved it away. "We have fifteen minutes more to work," Roosevelt told her as a steward prepared the table for luncheon. Then the President passed his hand over his forehead. Shoumatoff consistently held ever afterwards that he never said anything about a headache or pain, or anything at all for that matter, after the "we have fifteen minutes more" comment. His head simply slumped forward listlessly. "Lucy, Lucy," Shoumatoff cried out, "something has happened!" She knocked her easel and tools over in a panicky rush to alert the Secret Service agent nearby. All was bedlam in an instant. A group of men now carried Roosevelt to the bedroom. "I could not see exactly who was carrying him but I will never forget that silhouette on the background of the open door to the sunny porch." Lucy suddenly said to her, "We must pack and go. The family is arriving by plane and the rooms must be vacant. We must get to Aiken before dark."
Shoumatoff, Lucy, Robbins (who had been in another room and did not know what had happened), and the Unfinished Portrait, were packed into a car and driving away in a matter of minutes. They had just been present at one of the momentous pivots in world history, one with which their names would be associated forever. Yet the instant they left the Little White House, things descended from grand tragedy to low comedy. Nonplussed at the crying women beside him in the car, Robbins kept asking what was the matter. Not wanting to reveal their secret they lied and said Lucy had heard bad news about her son in hospital. They drove on in grieving silence, stopping in a nearby town where the news of FDR's death had already spread. "Another tragedy!" Robbins exclaimed, shaking his head. Back on the road, they tuned in the car radio and heard the solemn tones of H. V. Kaltenborn report that "An architect was making sketches at the time of Roosevelt's death." An architect! "Here it comes," Shoumatoff thought to herself, shuddering. "My name will be flashed all over the world." Could they at least get my occupation right! They made it to Aiken by nightfall, and Shoumatoff called her daughter in New York to get the latest news. The reports now claimed the President died while having his portrait painted by a famous Russian artist, a Mr. Robbins! Telling Lucy the news, the two women dissolved their stress and grief in a long, nearly hysterical fit of laughter. Setting out for New York with the renowned Mr. Robbins the next day, Shoumatoff's trip kept getting weirder. They saw the slow moving Presidential train lumbering past at a southern crossroads, where a policeman approached them and briefly interrogated them. Learning the names of the passengers he said in awestruck tones, "Are you the Mr. Robbins, the artist?" Robbins bowed his head in silent assent and drove on. Back in New York at last, Robbins decided to stop and pick up his mail before bringing Shoumatoff out to her home on Long Island, but the press had yet to be disabused of Robbins's fame, and they were camped outside his apartment. When he tore away at high speed, the news hounds were fast on his heels. "As we zigged and zagged through Harlem," Shoumatoff remembered, "I did not know whether to cry or to laugh." They finally lost their pursuers on the Triborough Bridge, with Robbins's evasive maneuvers having sent Shoumatoff to the floor of the car in a heap. She decided to laugh. And "by this time I was laughing so that I could not stop." Within a few days the press finally got the story straight, and Shoumatoff held a brief press conference to satiate their curiosity, and to close off any further inquiries about that dreadful day. She never revealed Lucy Rutherford's presence of course-and credited Robbins for keeping the secret as well. In the early 1960s she went back to Warm Springs as just another tourist, donning sunglasses, and paying for her ticket like everyone else. There were few other visitors, and a guide began chatting with her. "Have you been here before?" he asked. "Yes," she replied, "on different occasions." She listened as the guard told the story of April 12, 1945, getting it pretty nearly right. He even knew the story of the portrait: the artist had refused to show it to anyone for some time, but the New York Daily News offered her $25,000 to run a photo of it, and she accepted. She donated the unfinished painting here, to the Little White House, where it sits on the same chair where Roosevelt posed. Madame Shoumatoff executed a second, completed version of the portrait, which she also donated to Warm Springs in 1960. "Of course, Mrs. Shoumatoff is a very old lady now," the guard concluded, "but I understand she still paints." "Good for her!" the visitor exclaimed.
Also included are two of the original, full color prints reproduced from the original Unfinished Portrait, and copyrighted to Elizabeth Shoumatoff, 1945. One of these prints is truly exceptional, for in the right hand corner, above "Limited First Edition," Shoumatoff writes in her own hand: "Retouched/ E.S." Therefore, the artist herself took brush to this print and as such transformed it into yet another original Shoumatoff painting associated with FDR's last hours! Both limited edition prints are framed in gold leaf and measure 15 ˝ x 18 ˝." This rarest artistic set of mementos from the time of FDR's death on April 12, 1945, is a cornerstone of this FDR Collection.
The Franklin D. Roosevelt American Heritage Center Museum is
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Visit Union Station, 2 Washington Square in Worcester, Massachusetts, the home of the Franklin D. Roosevelt American Heritage Center Museum.
President Roosevelt visited Union Station and Worcester, Massachusetts on multiple occasions.
Learn More about the many visits of President Roosevelt to Union Station.
Contact Information for the Franklin D. Roosevelt American Heritage Center
Museum and Special Collection:
Franklin D. Roosevelt American Heritage Center Museum
The Franklin D. Roosevelt American Heritage
Center Museum and Special Collection are homes to a large, diverse, and historically
significant collection of Roosevelt and New Deal materials. Let your New Deal adventure begin! Welcome to the Franklin D.
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We now proudly present some images of the FDR American
Heritage Center Museum gallery and exhibition within the historic Union Station of Worcester,
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Heritage Center Museum, including a stunning lithograph of Union Station from the 1920s (third image down), photographs of
the restored Great Hall of Union Station, as well as more detailed description of just a small number of
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Union Station, Second Floor
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Franklin D. Roosevelt American Heritage Center Special Collection
Henry Hobson Richardson Room
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Visit the Henry Hobson Richardson Room of the Thomas Crane Public Library, 40 Washington Street in Quincy, Massachusetts, the home of the Franklin D. Roosevelt American Heritage Center Special Collection.
The Franklin D. Roosevelt American Heritage Center Museum also has items on loan to the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
The FDR American Heritage Center Museum and Special Collection
showcase one of the finest primary source documentary and other artifact
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FDR, ER, and the New Deal in the world. Further, the FDR American Heritage
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educational settings, so that the New Deal era will be taught more
substantively and effectively to children and other students of all
The FDR American Heritage Center, therefore, not only functions as a major Museum consortium,
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