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The tragedy of Elizabeth Shoumatoff’s unfinished portrait of President Franklin Roosevelt

Domagoj Valjak
Getty Images
Getty Images

Elizabeth Shoumatoff was a Russian-American artist who painted numerous portraits of influential American and European figures throughout the 20th century. Her works included portraits of members of famous families such as the Firestones, the du Ponts, the Woodruffs, and the Grand Ducal family of Luxembourg. But she is most famous for painting an unfinished portrait of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The reason she chose to leave it unfinished is that Roosevelt died while posing for her portrait, just a few hours after she began working on it.

Shoumatoff was born in Moscow in 1888 and lived there until 1917, when she and her husband, Leo, moved to Long Island in New York State after the October Revolution. Leo Shoumatoff found a well-paid job at an aeronautics company, and Elizabeth decided to pursue a career in portraiture. Although she had no formal art training, extraordinary talent and hard work soon led her to develop a distinct and detailed style that made her paintings instantly recognizable.

At first, Elizabeth mostly painted portraits of her friends, and occasionally she completed portraits of local industrialists. After her husband drowned in an accident in 1928, she decided to start offering her portraiture services to wealthy clients across the United States in order to support her family.

Roosevelt’s last photograph, taken by Nicholas Robbins at the Little White House in Warm Springs, April 11, 1945. He died the following day.

Roosevelt’s last photograph, taken by Nicholas Robbins at the Little White House in Warm Springs, April 11, 1945. He died the following day.

In the mid-1930s, Elizabeth Shoumatoff befriended Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd, a woman best known for her love affair with Franklin Roosevelt, which lasted for two years during World War I, nearly 20 years before he was elected president.

Lucy Rutherfurd was amazed by Shoumatoff’s portrait of her and she used her extensive connections to acquire new clients for the aspiring portraitist.
Although the romantic relationship between Rutherfurd and Roosevelt allegedly ended in 1918 when Eleanor Roosevelt discovered her husband’s emotional letters to his mistress and he promised never to see Rutherfurd again, the two remained close friends for the rest of their lives. They spent significant amounts of time together even after Roosevelt became president and one of the leading figures of the global political scene.

In 1943, Rutherfurd persuaded Roosevelt to hire Shoumatoff to paint his portrait. Although she disliked the president’s progressive views, Shoumatoff agreed to paint the portrait. In the end, she spent three days on it and was won over by Roosevelt’s charisma and wit. As for Roosevelt, he was so astonished by her skills that he immediately hired her to paint another portrait of him, a life-size one that would be displayed at the White House.

However, the global turmoil of World War II caused Roosevelt to postpone his second meeting with Shoumatoff until April 12, 1945. By that time, Roosevelt’s health had deteriorated significantly and he was surrounded by medical staff at all times.

However, according to Shoumatoff’s memoirs, he was in a good mood when she arrived at the White House to paint the second portrait: “As I started mixing my paint, I looked very carefully at his face. I was struck by his exceptionally good color. That gray look had disappeared. I was later told by doctors that this gray color was caused by the approaching cerebral hemorrhage.”

Roosevelt asked Shoumatoff to paint him outside, which was an unusual setting for a formal presidential portrait. She worked on the painting until lunch break, and after lunch the two returned outside so that Shoumatoff could add a few more lines to the portrait. As Shoumatoff was about to finish for the day, Roosevelt suddenly slumped forward in his chair and lost consciousness. The frightened Shoumatoff quickly alerted the White House staff, but it was too late. Roosevelt suffered a massive brain hemorrhage and died several hours later.

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Shoumatoff never finished the portrait, and it became famous for representing the great president in the last days of his life. It is currently displayed at the Little White House, Roosevelt’s retreat in Warm Springs, Georgia. Shoumatoff later painted another portrait of Roosevelt, which now hangs on the wall beside the famous unfinished one.