John Updike: March 18, 1932 - January 27, 2009

Portrait of John Updike
John Updike / By Alex Katz, 1982 / Oil on canvas / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Time magazine

John Updike was nothing if not prolific; he once said his goal was to publish a book a year. He came close, publishing more than sixty volumes of poetry, novels, short stories, and nonfiction. He examined the morals and manners of suburban America and chronicled the middle-class American postwar history in comic and heartbreaking fashion. Updike wrote five novels featuring his character Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom and another three featuring a Jewish novelist called Henry Bech. His 1960 New Yorker essay on baseball player Ted Williams’s retirement, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” is regarded as one of the best pieces of sports journalism.

A native of Pennsylvania, Updike spent most of his adult years living in Massachusetts. His work earned him two National Book Awards and two Pulitzer Prizes; he also received the National Medal of Art and the National Medal for the Humanities. A longtime resident of Beverly Farms, Massachusetts, Updike died of lung cancer Tuesday at the age of seventy-six.  

This portrait of John Updike, by artist Alex Katz, was created for Time magazine and appeared on the cover of the October 18, 1982, edition. It is on display in the museum's “20th Century Americans” exhibition, on the third floor. Frederick Voss, former senior historian at the National Portrait Gallery, now retired, wrote an article about the portrait in the museum’s Profile magazine in the spring of 2003.  His article is reprinted below:

In 1982 novelist-poet-essayist John Updike (born 1932) turned fifty. Over the past quarter century, he had become one of America’s most prolific and widely read writers. Although critics were not always unanimous in praise of his art, only the most myopic would have denied him a prominent place among the literary chroniclers of America’s modern-day mores. Among those struck by the significance of his achievements thus far was Time magazine, whose editors decided that the moment was ripe for a cover story on Updike. As the magazine put it—commandeering the alliterative titles of two of his novels—“Rabbit is rich. Bech is back. Updike is ubiquitous.” More to the point, the magazine noted, he was beginning his sixth decade of life “indisputably at the top of his craft.”

To make Updike’s newsmaker portrait, Time turned to painter Alex Katz. Characterized by flattened perspective and a reduction of features to their basic contours, Katz’s often large, close-cropped likenesses represent a redefinition of portraiture that, while rooted in a traditional concern for accuracy, also echoes the modernist sensibilities of the Abstract Expressionists who influenced him in his early years. “If you don’t have a good likeness,” Katz once said, “you don’t have a good picture.” But that was valid only to a point. “You can wreck a painting very easily,” he noted, “if you get obsessive about likeness.”

This was not the first time that Updike would be appearing on a Time cover, and when he confronted his likeness in that much-coveted spot back in 1968, he had not been altogether jubilant over what he saw. At least that was the sense of an autobiographical poem written shortly thereafter, in which he mused:

From Time’s grim cover, my fretful face peers out. Ten thousand soggy mornings warped my lids and minced a crafty pulp of this my mouth.

“Warped lids” notwithstanding, Updike was willing to have another go at cover celebrity, and when Time asked him to sit for Katz, he was agreeable. The preliminary image for the portrait was done at the writer’s seaside home in Massachusetts. Updike posed for it in his study, seated near a window and looking, as the artist later recalled, “definitely sort of literary” in his tweed jacket and pink button-down shirt. In the interest of identifying the “gestures that belong” to his subjects, Katz likes to keep them animated as he draws. That meant maintaining a steady stream of conversation with Updike, which did not prove difficult, and Katz remembers the encounter as very relaxed and easy. Katz also found the light in Updike’s study ideal, and the lighting in the final likeness, he claims, was “the most accurate” element of the whole picture.

Updike saw Katz’s preliminary study for the portrait but did not say anything to the artist about whether he liked it or not. Nor, so far as Katz knows, did he ever comment on the final version after he saw it in published form. Two members of Updike’s admiring public, however, were not so reticent. “What a washed-out portrait of Updike on the cover!” one of them complained to Time. “Katz missed his subject’s warmth and vibrance.” But another reader claimed that Katz had captured in full the Updike that she had come to love, “never jaded, always new, alive, intelligent and marvelously controlled.”

Alas, if only I had the creative genius of, say, a John Updike, I would now use those antipodal responses as the springboard for a prize-winning novel or short story.

blog_audio_listen_icon_0.gifListen to John Updike discuss the profession of writing, recorded in 2003. (1:15)

For further reading: To savor John Updike there is no substitute for his own fiction, poetry, and essays. Of special interest is his Just Looking: Essays on Art (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989). Books about Updike include Lawrence R. Broer, ed., Rabbit Tales: Poetry and Politics in John Updike’s Rabbit Novels (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1998); and William H. Pritchard, Updike: America’s Man of Letters (South Royalton, Vt.: Steerforth Press, 2000).

Portrait of John Updike in the "20th Century Amercans" gallery