Each portrait has a story behind its creation. However, not all of those stories are knowable, as history often hides the details of the circumstances of the artist and the sitter coming together. This is not the case of the National Portrait Gallery’s painting of Eudora Welty by Mildred Nungester Wolfe.
Wolfe was a versatile artist who only recently passed away, in February of 2009; her work can be found in several museums and the Library of Congress. Her biography and retrospective, Mildred Nungester Wolfe (University Press of Mississippi, 2005), contains the story of the creation of the Welty portrait. The painting is on display on the museum's third floor, in the "Twentieth Century Americans" exhibition.
I had always wanted to paint Eudora Welty. She reminded me of a woman in one of Rembrandt’s portraits, holding a fan. She, like Eudora, is not exactly pretty, but not ugly either; and it’s a beautiful painting. Once I asked Eudora to pose for me, but at that time her mother was ill, and she was making frequent trips to the nursing home in Vicksburg to see her. She could not spare the time to sit. Later, after her mother passed away, I asked her again. I had decided to paint a watercolor portrait, which wouldn’t take much of her time. She came out to the studio with a book on Chekhov, a biography. She sat reading it, not looking up, laughing at what she was reading, and every now and then making a comment to me with a glance and a twinkle in her eye. The result was a very immediate and intimate portrait, done all on the spot.
A few years later the National Portrait Gallery in Washington was seeking a portrait of Eudora to add to its collection. She herself owned a portrait that had been done when she was a young woman, but she wanted to keep the painting hanging in her house. The artist who painted it was now pressing Eudora to sell it back to her, apparently so that she could turn around and sell it to the National Portrait Gallery. Eudora was outraged. She said to me, “I just wish somebody would paint another portrait and keep that woman silent, so I don’t have to hear from her again.” She didn’t outright ask me to paint one, but she suggested it would be a good idea.
I thought about it for a year before deciding that I might as well try it. In 1988, I asked her if I could come and make a drawing of her in her house. It was very cold that day. The heat was off in her house, and she was sitting in her chair in the living room with her coat on. I didn’t take my coat off either. I very carefully made a full-scale drawing in charcoal, took a photograph, and made some color notes. I used all this information to start on the canvas in the studio so Eudora would not have to sit for the portrait. When I was satisfied, I had her come and look. She liked it. I packed up and sent it, with some trepidation, to Washington. The selection committee sent word back: they loved the composition and the hands and head… If I was willing to make it more somber, they would be happy to reconsider it. When the painting came back, I darkened the color of the coat and, using Eudora’s borrowed scarf as a model, carefully painted in its printed pattern, toning down the color at the same time. The committee loved the revised painting and were very pleased that I had been willing to change it.
Eudora Welty was born 100 years ago this past April 13 and she died on July 23, 2001. She was born in Jackson, Mississippi, and she died in Jackson, Mississippi. Welty attended the Mississippi University for Women (also called the “W”) from 1925 through 1927 and then transferred to the University of Wisconsin, from which she graduated in 1929.
She enjoyed great acclaim as a writer, and her photography from her service in the Works Progress Administration has been exhibited in many museums. Her short stories are widely anthologized, while one of her novels, The Optimist’s Daughter, received the Pulitzer Prize in 1973. An early novel of Welty’s, The Robber Bridegroom (1941), was adapted into a Broadway musical in 1976 and earned a 1977 Tony Award for Best Actor (Barry Bostwick) and eight Drama Desk awards.
Listen to Warren Perry's Face-to-Face talk on Eudora Welty (23:59)
Face-to-Face occurs every Thursday evening at the National Portrait Gallery. The next Face-to-Face talk is this Thursday, May 7, when Sid Hart, senior historian, speaks about the portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Charles Wilson Peale, on view in the exhibition “Presidents in Waiting.” The talk runs from 6:00 to 6:30 p.m. Visitors meet the presenter in the museum’s F Street lobby and then walk to the appropriate gallery.
Eudora Welty / Mildred Nungester Wolfe, 1988 / Oil on canvas / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution