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Gardner Cox

By John Kenneth Galbraith

Gardner Cox was my friend for a full forty years. I knew him, of course, as an artist, the premier portraitist of our time. But I also knew him as a well-loved neighbor, and on many community and political matters as an interested and sympathetic ally. Gardner, a man of quiet style and charm, did not step forward to cite one’s duty; there was no similar hesitation on the part of his wonderfully committed wife Phyllis, who was also the subject of some of his most compelling work.

Gardner Cox became a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1957. He died in 1988 at the sensible age of 81. I cite not my view but that of all in this body when I say that we today remember one of the truly talented artists of our time.

Gardner grew up in circumstances closely conditioned to the arts. Born in Holyoke, Massachusetts, his family moved to Boston a few weeks later and to Cambridge soon thereafter. His mother was a painter of enthusiasm and talent. After a short venture in architecture, Gardner turned to painting and, after landscapes and general subjects, he came to concentrate all but exclusively on portraits. No one has so aided us in remembering and also in understanding the notable and, to be sure, some of the less notable figures of the mid-century and on. George Marshall, Felix Frankfurter, Earl Warren, Robert Kennedy, Robert Frost, Averell Harriman, Barry Bingham, Elizabeth and Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., are but a few whose image for all time is that given by Gardner Cox. In the course of life at Harvard I almost daily encounter colleagues of the past who are kept with me by his brush. I think of him gratefully every such day. Once, indeed, a critic called Gardner Cox “the court painter of Harvard University.” Given my own personal history, I certainly see nothing wrong with that!

The work that Gardner Cox left us is remarkable scarcely more for its quality than for its amount. He was not only a great but a compulsive artist. Once at a concert with Phyllis, he got out his book and began sketching. She told him rather firmly to abstain. “What else is there to do?” he asked. It was, Phyllis told me, the last time she so drew him away from duty.

Gardner Cox once observed that the difference between a photograph and a portrait is that “a photograph is a fact; a portrait is an opinion.” His opinion was carefully studied, faithfully rendered. There is a calm accuracy about Gardner Cox’s portraits and, not least, a subtle beauty that wonderfully holds the eye. A Boston observer, Edgar J. Driscoll, Jr., writing of Cox’s painting at his death, said he had “a distinctive, vital, contemporary painting style based on the representational but with expressionistic overtones. His brushwork was free and fluent, his color subtle and warm, giving his canvases a feeling of verve and spontaneity.”

His opinion, however, did not always sit well with his subjects; in a well-reported case Henry Kissinger asked him to improve on the picture that was to remember him on the walls of the State Department. Gardner, declined, saying: “I didn’t see anything I wanted to change.”

I am led to conclude with a commentary that I wrote a quarter-century back on the portraits that celebrate the other former Secretaries of State along that formidable wall adjacent to the senior offices in Washington. “Until the time of William Jennings Bryan,” I wrote, “these portraits have a certain dignity; thereafter they deteriorate rapidly in quality and style, and that of James F. Byrnes slightly suggests a fugitive from justice and of Edward R Stettinius, Jr., one that has just been apprehended.” But then I found improvement: “Dean Acheson,” I said, “looks spiritual and surprised.” Dean Acheson was by Gardner Cox.

Read at the Institute Dinner Meeting on April 2, 1991.

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