“Painting is a kind of ‘open sesame’ to a person’s inner soul.” – Greta Kempton
Greta Kempton was a national treasure, revered in her time as “America’s Court Painter.” Though best known for her portraits of President Harry S. Truman and his family, she painted political leaders, corporate moguls and everyday people in a style that has been compared to the best works of Rembrandt, Rubens, Renoir and Degas.
Greta Kempton believed that a relative should recognize a portrait and that a stranger should be able to read a subject’s character almost as well in a painting as by looking at the person in the flesh. She liked to please her subjects, but not flatter them. “I like to paint women as they visualize themselves,” she said. “Men, on the other hand, are satisfied if the result shows strength and character.”
Martha Greta Kempton was born March 22, 1903 (or, by some accounts, 1901) in Vienna, Austria. Though her mother was a Romanian Jew living in Austria, her father, H.K. Kempton, was a British businessman from Manchester. In interviews, Kempton said that she grew up in a well-to-do family and created her first portrait at age 9, painting a portrait of her sleeping governess. An art teacher who recognized her precocious talent took her under her wing, introducing her to the works of the masters in the museums of Vienna.
Kempton attended finishing school in Vienna, but became so obsessed with the joy of painting that during the last year she insisted the finishing school teachers come to her, so she could have her mornings free to paint. Later, she became a pupil of Rauchinger and Willonce in the Vienna National Academy of Design, and apparently also studied at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts.
Leaving Vienna, Kempton began traveling and painting in the great museums of Italy, France and England, but her activities in the mid-1920s are shrouded in mystery. It was a charming fairy book story, and like all fairy tales, almost completely false.
In reality, Greta married Alexander Vago in 1919. The couple had a child, Margaret, who later went by the name Daisy. In the early 1920’s, Vago was arrested and found guilty of fraud. To escape a prison sentence, Vago fled with his family to the United States and later settled in Mexico City where he became a jeweler.
After a family dispute in 1926, Kempton fled from Mexico City to California with her daughter and a sizable amount of jewelry. After the resultant custody and legal battles, Greta and her daughter finally settled back in New York. Those who were closest to them recall Greta and Daisy having a stormy relationship throughout Greta’s entire life.
EARLY YEARS IN AMERICA
According to attendance records, Kempton registered at the Arts Student League of New York and took classes there beginning in 1928, studying under George E. Bridgeman. In 1932, Kempton registered for a Life Studies class at the National Academy of Design in New York. A family member recalls Greta telling the story of selling picture postcards on the streets of New York to make ends meet and support herself and her daughter.
Greta’s professional career began in Long Island, when a portrait she painted of a neighborhood boy led to several commissions from other members of his family. “By word of mouth, I was in the portrait business,” she said. Under the name Mrs. Martha Kempton, she exhibited a portrait titled “Vera” at the Salons of America in 1931—one of the first records of Kempton appearing in an art catalog.
By the mid-1930s, Greta Kempton was also spending time in California and was well-established as a painter of commissioned portraits. Hollywood studio heads like Louis B. Mayer of MGM and Adolf Zukor (founder of Paramount Pictures) and producers like Hal Roach (famous for his “Our Gang” comedy shorts) were among her clients.
By the end of the decade, she was back on the East coast, where she painted a portrait of New Jersey Governor Harold Hoffman. With her fame and income growing, she now had her own studio on 54 West Seventy-Fourth Street, New York City.
In the early 1940s, Kempton married Ambrose Michael MacNamara, an Irish immigrant who was at least 16 years her senior. He managed several Cuban sugar companies and became the president of Commercial Molasses Corporation of New York City.
Throughout the 1940s, her husband’s business interests divided the couple’s time between New York and New Orleans. Greta painted most of the prominent citizens of both cities, and also began painting portraits in Lynchburg, Virginia. After the war, when MacNamara’s businesses were struggling. Kempton offered all her personal assets to help him. By the end of the decade, despite her support and their lifelong affection for one another, Kempton and MacNamara’s marriage floundered.
In 1945, Kempton’s daughter, Daisy, married Albert C. Doskey (or d’Ossche). Doskey later became involved in the TV business in New Orleans. Greta’s only grandchild, Albert Kempton d’Ossche, was born in New Orleans in August 1947.
THE WASHINGTON YEARS
On a trip to Virginia, Kempton painted the wife of Senator Carter Glass, which led to her painting Senator Glass himself. Now moving in political circles, she arrived in Washington, D.C. in 1946, staying at the Shoreham Hotel. An introduction to Treasury Secretary John Snyder and his family led to a commission to paint Snyder’s daughter, Drucie. Kempton’s portrait of Drucie was later used for an Avon cosmetics campaign in 1949. After painting Drucie, Kempton was commissioned to paint her father. When the Treasury Secretary’s portrait was finished, President and Mrs. Truman were invited to a reception at which the completed work was unveiled. Soon after, Kempton was commissioned to paint the President.
The first—and ultimately most famous—portrait of President Truman was done over the course of five sittings in the Cabinet Room of the White House. When she arrived, she found her easel and supplies all set up for her. There were several Secret Service men in the room, whom she quickly dismissed. When the President sat down to pose, he was holding some papers in his hand. Kempton told him it was time for him to relax while she did all the work. To show the utmost respect for her subjects, while painting, Kempton customarily dressed in cocktail party attire. This added to her reputation as one of America’s best-dressed women.
Chatting with the President while she painted, Kempton established a bond of friendship that spanned Truman’s life. When Truman first saw the completed portrait, he said that it was “all right,” but he’d have to wait for the opinion of “the boss” – the First Lady. Bess Truman reacted by saying, “This is how I see you.” Kempton’s portrait was used in 1948 as the official re-election campaign poster. The same portrait was the basis for a 1983 postage stamp honoring Truman and for a 1985 U.S. Mint coin honoring Truman’s 100th birthday.
After painting the President’s portrait, Kempton was next asked to do one of the President’s daughter, Margaret. This and a later portrait of Margaret are today prominently displayed in the Truman home in Independence, Missouri. Kempton eventually painted a total of three portraits of First Lady Bess Truman, and several more of the President, including a Masonic portrait for the Grand Lodge of Missouri. Another was begun in 1948, but was set aside and only completed in 1970; it now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution. A family portrait of the Trumans was commissioned by the Missouri Historical Society.
As one of the country’s premier portraitists, Greta Kempton was vital in documenting the Truman era through the extensive canvases commissioned of the Attorney General, the Secretary of the Air Force, the Secretary of the Interior, the Postmaster General and many other members of the President’s administration. During the Truman years, Kempton’s income from commissioned portraits was believed to have been close to $150,000. In February 1949, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. hosted a one-woman show saluting Kempton’s portraiture in Washington and Virginia. This Corcoran exhibit attracted more visitors than any exhibition by a living artist.
“I fought like a lion to paint.”- Greta Kempton
After Kempton’s marriage to Ambrose MacNamara ended in divorce, she married Willard F. Walker in 1950. Walker was president of the Continental Can Company (later Cleveland Container Corporation) of Cleveland, Ohio. By now, Kempton had studios in New York, New Orleans and Washington D.C. She also traveled to other major cities for prominent commissions, including Chicago’s Archbishop, Cardinal Stritch, who posed in ermine robes during one of the city’s most oppressive heat waves.
Settling in Cleveland with her new husband, who frowned upon her career, she struggled to maintain ties to the art world by becoming a visiting portrait instructor at the Cooper School of Art. She was still sought after as a presidential portrait painter. Four times she was asked to paint a portrait of incoming President Dwight D. Eisenhower, but with her new desire to be a devoted wife, each time she declined. While accompanying her husband on his frequent business travels, she found every small opportunity to frequent galleries and museums and to drop in on art classes in her quest to keep in touch with her deepest passion.
When Willard Walker retired in the early 1960s, the couple settled in Hinckley, Ohio. Behind their home was a two-story log cabin where Kempton set up a new studio and once again began painting full-time. She continued to maintain part-time homes and studios in New York and Santa Monica, California. Up until this time, her work had been predominantly formal and somewhat “Old World”. But as she picked up her brushes anew, she began experimenting with some of the techniques she had picked up during her travels, moving away from the traditional portraiture that made her world famous. Working in her studio in Hinckley, she began painting character studies and still lifes.
The Royal Society of Arts in England honored Kempton by making her a Life Fellow in 1963. Most proud of this distinction, forever afterward she used stationary with the heading “Greta Kempton, FRSA” (Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts). Her new art showed a freshness and vitality that won her new acclaim. In December of 1964, her work was exhibited at the Canton Art Institute in Ohio, attracting the largest attendance they’d ever recorded. Back in the spotlight, Kempton was asked to paint yet another President, Lyndon B. Johnson. Out of her devotion and friendship to the Trumans, she turned the offer down.
In 1965, Willard Walker sued her for divorce, seeking alimony. The proceedings drained Kempton’s bank account. A year later, she received a letter saying that Walker had remarried in Italy. Soon after the divorce, she gave notice to her landlord that she was giving up her studio in Ohio. The following month, she sold her Santa Monica, California home.
After the divorce, Kempton spent more time in New York, where she eventually settled at 14 East 75th Street at the southwest corner of Madison Avenue, across from the Whitney Museum of American Art, just a block from Central Park.
She continued to paint throughout the remainder of her life, including donating her time restoring many valuable old European paintings at the Church of the Transfiguration in New York City. In 1987 the Truman Library Institute celebrated Greta Kempton’s life by hosting an exhibition of her works entitled “Greta Kempton: 40 Years on Canvas.” The exhibit showcased thirty-two of her paintings completed between 1940 and 1987.
Though her relationship with her daughter remained stormy, she forged a strong bond with her grandson, Albert Kempton d’Ossche. Like his grandmother, d’Ossche was a talented artist in his own right, a musician and artisan credited with reviving the dulcimer instrument. He co-authored the book “In Search of the Wild Dulcimer” and made several recordings with his musical partner, Robert Force. Force and d’Ossche performed at folk music festivals throughout the U.S. until the folk music revival began to fade. D’Ossche spent the rest of his career in the TV industry, becoming a line producer for New World Television in Los Angeles. Given Greta’s many marriages and strained relations with her daughter, her relationship with Albert was clearly her dearest and most lasting familial bond. As accomplished artists, Greta and Albert shared a strong respect and admiration for one another. Sadness overwhelmed Greta when Albert died in August 1990. The following year, on December 10, 1991, Martha Greta Kempton passed away in her New York City apartment. After a funeral service conducted by Father Norman Catir, her body was cremated and her ashes placed in the columbarium of the Church of the Transfiguration. Kempton was survived by her estranged daughter, Daisy, and her granddaughter-in-law, Albert’s widow, both now deceased.
As a final tribute to her friendship with the Trumans, and with a lack of close ties to familial heirs, Kempton left the bulk of her sizable estate, including her own private art collection, to the Truman Library Institute. The proceeds of the estate seeded major library restorations to follow and remain in endowment.
But Greta Kempton’s art lives on. Her works remain part of collections of the finest institutions, universities, family estates and private collections. “Yes,” she once said, “I suppose I have cluttered a few walls with paintings that will remain for many years after I have gone.” May Greta Kempton’s legacy as one of the world’s premier artists be cherished and celebrated for generations to come. •
Kempton was elected a Life Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, was a Life Fellow of the International Kappa Pi Art Fraternity, and a Life Member of the Empire Chapter of the National Society of Arts and Letters, Washington, D.C. Her works are in the collections of the White House, the U.S. Department of the Treasury, the U.S. Supreme Court, the Harry S Truman Library, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, the National Portrait Gallery, and many other institutions.