Eleanor Roosevelt's lifelong quest to understand and improve the lives of others began on a local level and gradually expanded to encompass much of the world. In the process, she compelled herself to square off against daunting challenges that stretched her beyond what others thought she could (or should) do.
While still in her teens, she defied the expectations of her well-to-do family in order to work with economically disadvantaged children on New York's Lower East Side. That experience, she later said, "taught me an understanding of a side of life that might have remained to me a closed book." She threw herself into relief work for the Navy and the Red Cross and lobbied for more humane treatment of shell-shocked sailors during World War I. Ignoring strictures against women appearing in the public eye, she emerged as a political force to be reckoned with in her thirties. And during the twelve years that her husband, Franklin Roosevelt, served as president, she sailed through headwinds of criticism to transform the role of First Lady, becoming a high-profile advocate for political, economic, and racial justice; relief efforts for refugees; opportunities for women and minorities; and many other humanitarian causes.
Eleanor Roosevelt's effectiveness owed much to the media-savvy communications skills that brought her message to ever-widening audiences. She published thousands of newspaper and magazine articles, including the nationally syndicated daily newspaper column "My Day," which ran from 1935 to 1960. A pioneer of the airwaves, she made her first radio broadcast in 1925, went on to host a series of weekly programs during the 1940s and 1950s, and hosted her own television program from 1959 to 1961. She made countless speeches throughout the country and the world and was the first presidential spouse to hold regular press conferences at the White House.
Through it all, Roosevelt kept the focus on others, modestly resorting to self-deprecating wit to soft-pedal her own importance. In one of her "My Day" columns, she mentioned the "very large gathering" of reporters attending the press conference held on the occasion of her sixtieth birthday in 1944. With her usual lack of pretension, she quipped: "Everyone wanted to see if, having lived 60 years, a very sudden change had taken place overnight in my appearance!"
Unbeknownst to her, the ripples emanating from that 1944 press conference would provide an enduring testament to the First Lady’s international significance and the admiration she commanded even far from home. A photograph made that day somehow found its way to Warsaw, Poland, where it inspired the artist Bernard Frydrysiak to paint Roosevelt’s portrait. Frydrysiak is best known as a member of the Brotherhood of St. Luke, an idealistic group of artists who organized the Polish Pavilion at the 1939 World's Fair in New York. The Fair coincided with the twentieth anniversary of the Second Polish Republic, and Frydrysiak and his colleagues commemorated the milestone with a series of paintings that emphasized Poland's historic association with the ideals of democracy. It is possible that Roosevelt saw his work on one of her many visits to the Fair, for her attention had been directed to the Polish Pavilion within days of the grand opening by a delegation of Polish diplomats who visited her on May 12, 1939. That visit took place just months before the German invasion of Poland, which brought an end to the short-lived Polish Republic and unleashed the horrors of the Second World War.
Frydrysiak painted Eleanor Roosevelt after the war’s conclusion—in 1946, a year that proved to be a turning point in her life. Following the death of her husband in April 1945, his successor, Harry Truman, appointed Roosevelt to serve as US delegate to the United Nations. She took her seat at the first General Assembly in January 1946 and three months later was nominated to chair the group of delegates charged with creating the UN’s Commission on Human Rights. She would ultimately head both that commission, as well as the subcommittee that painstakingly crafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Roosevelt hoped would become the "international Magna Carta for all Mankind." Over the course of eighty-five marathon working sessions—complicated by ongoing international tensions and the profound political and religious differences among the member nations—Roosevelt pushed on. Meanwhile she was also garnering public support for the UN’s mission by raising awareness of present-day human rights emergencies. For example, after meeting with the Polish minister of Labor and Welfare in April 1946, she used successive “My Day” columns to expose the desperate plight of Polish children orphaned by the war and in desperate need of food and clothing.
The extent to which Frydrysiak was aware of these contemporary events is unclear, but it seems appropriate that he chose to paint Eleanor Roosevelt in 1946, the pivotal year in which she launched herself anew on the world stage. The fact that the portrait was made an ocean away from the United States by an admirer she may never have met attests to the truth of President Truman’s characterization of Roosevelt as "The First Lady of the World."
The National Portrait Gallery is delighted to display Bernard Frydrysiak’s portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt as a loan honoring the museum’s fiftieth anniversary. Fortuitously 2018 is also the seventieth anniversary of one of Roosevelt’s greatest achievements: the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. It reminds us of the compassion and courage that enabled one remarkable woman to make an enormous difference in the world and recalls one of the “Keys to a More Fulfilling Life” that she shared in her book You Learn by Living, published in 1960:
You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, “I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.”
In short, she concluded, “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”