Celebrated Easton portraitist Everett Raymond Kinstler remembered
James Philip Head is something of an artist groupie. When he was in college in the late 1980s, instead of hanging posters of hair metal bands in his dorm room, he had a poster of Uncle Sam by acclaimed illustrator James Montgomery Flagg.
Flagg wasn’t the only illustrator Head admired either. He developed an affinity for Charles Dana Gibson, who created the iconic Gibson girl, and Howard Chandler Christy, arguably the most famous American painter of the Jazz age. It was also during his college years that Head became a fan of Everett Raymond Kinstler.
Kinstler, an Easton resident who died in Bridgeport May 26, was a celebrated artist who painted portraits of everyone from Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to John Wayne to Donald Trump (before he became president). “I thought he was a rock star among artists,” says Head, 49, of Chantilly, Va.
A high school drop-out before he even turned 16, Kinstler — known to many as “Ray” — earned a living in his early days drawing comics, illustrating stories and painting magazine and book covers. Even while working full-time, Kinstler studied life drawing and paint at the Art Students League in New York City, which set him on his path to portrait painting.
Unlike many of the other artists he admired, Head had an opportunity to meet Kinstler and become friends with him, through their shared loved of Howard Chandler Christy. After Head wrote the first in what will be a trilogy of non-fiction books about Christy in 2016, he received a fan letter from Kinstler.
Head was floored.
“It included a sketched portrait Kinstler had done of Christy,” Head recalls.
The men soon met, and Head pumped Kinstler for stories about Christy and other artists of the era. Kinstler had them and shared them readily. “We developed this close bond through the work of other artists,” he said.
Despite Kinstler’s fame, Head said he always found the artist to be kind and generous-hearted.
“When he and I met, he always made me feel special,” says Head. “He would say to me ‘Jim, I am talking to you just like I would talk to the President of the United States.’ A lot of people don’t care about other people. Ray always did.”
Kinstler even wrote the forward to Head’s latest book on Christy, “An Affair with Beauty — The Mystique of Howard Chandler Christy: Romantic Illusions.” The book came out in March and tells the story of Christy’s work and life through the eyes of Nancy Palmer Christy, the artist’s wife and former model.
When Head first approached Kinstler to write the forward, Kinstler initially demurred, saying that he thought he should wait and write the forward to the third and final book in Head’s Christy trilogy, as Kinstler didn’t meet Christy until later in Christy’s life.
But Head convinced his friend not to wait, and Kinstler soon embarked on the project with his customary zeal. “He would email me at 3 a.m. with ideas for the forward and things he wanted to say,” says Head.
The forward, according to Head, is likely the last published work Kinstler completed before his death at age 92.
Like Kinstler, Christy was a high school drop out who went on to attend the Art Students League, but had to leave due to a lack of funds. Yet Christy continued to study art and created a body of work that ranged from illustrations of wars to magazine illustrations featuring beautiful women who would come to be known as the “Christy Girls.”
In the forward to Head’s book, Kinstler talks about his fandom of Christy. “One of my first fine art purchases was an original 1939 sketch he drew of a reclining, young nude girl,” Kinstler writes. “I discovered it by chance in an antiques dealer’s shop, and it has hung in my studio ever since.”
The two artists met because Kinstler went to school with the cousin of one of Christy’s models. The model arranged for Kinstler to come to Christy’s studio. While there, Kinstler asked Christy to autograph Sir Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake, a favorite book with Christy’s illustrations.
Kinstler also praises Head’s book in the forward, saying that Head has “approached his subject with honesty, admiration and affection, combining a historian’s dedication and search for truthfulness with an artist’s eye.”
Head, meanwhile, was immensely grateful for Kinstler’s contribution to the book.
“I was very honored to be his friend,” says Head.
As for whether Head will ever write an exhaustive history of Kinstler’s life and work, the writer says he would like to, but fears that Kinstler’s catalogue of work — which includes more than 2,500 portraits — might be a little too vast.
“I think it would be a Herculean task,” says Head. “But it’s something that would interest me very much if I had the time and opportunity.”