FDR’s Unfinished Portrait

Before Christmas, I worked on a project which involved scanning and transcribing the letters of a WWII soldier (Grandpa B) to his wife (Grandma B). It was a really fun project and gave me a nice break from unpacking and remodeling. J helped me transcribe some letters, including one that discussed Grandpa B’s reaction to Roosevelt’s sudden death. Both J and I knew that Roosevelt had died suddenly, but neither of us knew the details.

After looking it up, we discovered that Roosevelt collapsed on April 12, 1945 while he was sitting for a portrait with the painter Elizabeth Shoumatoff. He died that same day from a cerebral hemorrhage. I don’t think there are any other important historical figures who have collapsed (and subsequently died) while sitting for a portrait. (Can anyone prove me wrong?)

This is a reproduction of Shoumatoff’s unfinished portrait of the president. The original portrait hangs in “The Little White House” museum in Georgia.

As has been commented elsewhere, I think that that this unfinished portrait is a visual representation of FDR’s unfinished presidential term. Roosevelt never got to see the defeat of Nazi Germany (V-E Day), and although he ordered the construction of the atomic bomb, he never was faced with the decision of dropping it on Japan. Truman had to pick up and finish Roosevelt’s incomplete work. Legal scholar Cass Sunstein argues that Roosevelt’s political work is still left unfinished; in 2004 Sunstein published The Second Bill of Rights: FDR’s Unfinished Revolution and Why We Need It More than Ever.

In 1991 Shoumatoff published a memoir regarding her experience of painting “The Unfinished Portrait.” I plan on reading it soon.

I also found online a transcript of Robert G. Nixon’s oral history. He also has some interesting recollections of the day FDR died.

  • e says:

    How interesting. I was just going through a review session on hypertension and the lecturer offhandedly said when discussing why high blood pressure is called the silent killer, “You know, FDR died because of this. He regularly walked around with a blood pressure near 260/100’s.” I got curious and found a news article on FDR’s medical records, which had for many years been kept secret. His blood pressure right after he collapsed while being painted was 300/190?! No wonder he had a hemorrhage in his brain. It’s amazing he didn’t die much earlier.

    Here’s the article link if anyone is interested.

  • Emilee . . . says:

    So interesting!

    I know I say this all the time, but I love your blog — it’s like having a history lesson each time. Perhaps I’m just a big nerd?

    I also love the link from ‘e’ — interesting stuff.

  • M says:

    Ooh, interesting article, e! Thanks for sharing. Wow, what scary blood pressure. I got more and more anxious when his different blood pressure numbers which were a “recipe for disaster.” Yikes!

    And Emilee, I’m so glad you love my nerdy posts. It’s nice to have someone get excited with me! 🙂

  • Nik "the BoyWonder" says:

    That is awesome!!! Thanks for sharing!

  • M says:

    I finally got around to reading Schumatoff's memoir. I didn't think everything was interesting; I was mostly interested in her experiences with FDR. It was especially interesting to read about FDR's last words to Schumatoff: "Shortly before lunch on April 12, 1945, while simultaneously working and posing, [FDR] addressed to [Schumatoff] in an apparently casual, but in retrospect moving remark, which proved to be his prophetic last words: 'We have fifteen more minutes left to work.'" (Schumatoff, xiv). The president collapsed shortly afterward.

    Pretty crazy, huh?

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.