Franklin D. Roosevelt’s unfinished potrait

The Unfinished Portrait is a watercolor of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt by ELIZABETH SHOUMATOFF. Shoumatoff was commissioned to paint a portrait of President Roosevelt and started her work around noon on April 12, 1945. At lunch, Roosevelt complained of a headache and subsequently collapsed. The President, who had suffered a  (stroke), died later that day.

Shoumatoff never finished the portrait, but she later painted a new, largely identical one, based on memory. The Unfinished Portraithangs at Roosevelt’s retreat, the Little White House, in Warm Springs, Georgia, with its finished counterpart beside it.

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In 1943, painter Elizabeth Shoumatoff was told by her friend and client Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd, who was also known for being the President’s mistress:

You should really paint the President. He has such a remarkable face. There is no painting of him that gives his true expression. I think you could do a wonderful portrait, and he would be such an interesting person to paint! Would you do a portrait of him if it was arranged?

Rutherfurd would go on to make the arrangements, with Shoumatoff agreeing to sit in for two days within two weeks’ time. She said of the agreement: “I was trapped into something I had neither wished for nor planned.” She went on to talk about not being able to turn down the honor of being selected for a Presidential commission.


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Elizabeth Shoumatoff had begun working on the portrait of the president around noon on April 12, 1945. Roosevelt was being served lunch when he said “I have a terrific pain in the back of my head.” He then slumped forward in his chair, unconscious, and was carried into his bedroom. The president’s attending cardiologist, Dr. Howard Bruenn, diagnosed a massive cerebral hemmorage (stroke). Roosevelt never regained consciousness and died at 3:35 p.m. that day. Shoumatoff never finished the portrait.

The Unfinished Portrait hangs at Roosevelt’s former health and relaxation retreat in Warm Springs, Georgia, known as the Little White House

Later, Shoumatoff decided to finish the portrait in FDR’s memory. She painted a new painting based on memory. One difference is that the tie that was red in the original is now blue in the finished painting. All other aspects are completely identical. The finished portrait now resides in the Legacy Exhibit beside the original at the Little White House Historic Site in Warm Springs.

In 1921, FDR found himself struggling to move his lower limbs. Unsure of what exactly was causing his illness, doctors misdiagnosed him with a variety of ailments and administered treatments that did not help improve his paralysis. Dr. Robert Lovettwas the first to diagnose FDR with infantile paralysis (polio) on August 25, 1921. This diagnosis was particularly surprising given the fact that most children grew immune to the disease as they got older, and FDR was 39 years old at the time of the diagnosis. However, political stressors and a childhood spent in ill health meant that the future president was susceptible to the disease.

Living as a disabled man in the early twentieth century was not easy for Roosevelt. He often steered talk away from his disability, and tried to mask his paralysis by holding onto someone’s arm and using a cane to swing himself from step to step to model walking. To further cloak his condition, he created his own wheelchair out of a modified dining room chair with bicycle-like wheels attached so that visitors who saw it wouldn’t notice it as quickly. Ever the stubborn man, FDR even adapted anb pedalsto allow himself to drive a car.

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