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Painted Treasures

Investing in Oils Portrait paintings capture more than simple images, becoming family treasures and paying dividends as status symbols
Warren Kalbacker
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Bacon, May/Jun 00

Morning light streams into William Draper's studio, a quiet refuge high above the traffic and noise of midtown Manhattan. The artist prepares his palette with primary colors. I wonder how the red, yellow and blue hues will meld into the image of my face. And that squiggle of bright green squeezing out of the tube? I don't dare ask for an explanation of technique. Draper is a master.  

Images of John F. Kennedy and the young Leonard Bernstein peer down from a wall. Kennedy is managing a smile, but just barely. I note the date: 1962. Maybe he's just learned that the Soviets have landed missiles in Cuba.  

"That's a replica I painted of my own Kennedy portrait," Draper points out. "The original now hangs in the White House." I arrived quite a while ago, but Draper's been in no hurry. He's shown me brightly colored landscapes painted during visits to Bermuda, Spain and elsewhere in Europe. Those scenes contrast with the muted tones of a Manhattan view, painted from a high midtown vantage point. Battle scenes from the Second World War hang about the studio. From the frigid Aleutians to the fiercely contested islands of Tinian and Guam, Navy combat artist Draper painted the war as he saw it. He depicted beaches strewn with dead Marines and Japanese corpses. But Navy censors drew the line at the sight of a sailor taking a leak outside his tent. "They took out the golden stream," Draper tells me.  

Finally he's doffed his sport jacket and donned a paint-stained smock. He asks my opinion of the fishing hat he'll put on before setting his hand to my portrait.   I realize that Draper's been sizing me up the whole time.

He beckons me to the heavy club chair that is mounted on a platform. Draper suggests several positions for my left arm and shoulder. I manage a few.  

"Can you hold that?" he asks.   I tell him it'll be OK for a little while.  

"You'll have to hold it for a lot longer than that.  

"Your neck!" he commands. "Show plenty of it! Lean forward!"  

It's a strain. But I'm being seduced. After all, I've never seen an image of myself except in a mirror or a photo. A mirror behind Draper allows me to watch him work. He's assured and casual, almost cavalier about the process. He dips his brush into one color, then another.  

Draper's strokes are quick and broad. Before long I recognize the outline of the top of my head.  

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