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Covering Time

The unpublished treasures of TIME magazine artist Boris Chaliapin.

The Kennedy assassination bumped this 1963 portrait of writer J.P. Donleavy off the cover.

Boris Chaliapin

It was a remarkable find. Tucked away in a closet in an attic in Easton, Connecticut, among Boris Chaliapin’s remaining works of art, were 139 beautifully preserved portraits of some of the most important men and women of the twentieth century. In his day, the artist had painted over 400 covers for TIME magazine — beginning with Nehru in 1942 and ending with Johnson in 1970. But these newly discovered portraits had never been published. Nor had box after box of meticulously saved letters, lists, sketches and reference material seen the light of day.

Helcia Chaliapin, Boris’s widow and once his business manager, had come to visit her great-nephew Eric Schwartz and his wife, Debra Fram, in Greenwich a few years ago and told them about the art in the attic of her former home, where a grandson now lives. A graphic artist and longtime volunteer at the Flinn Gallery at Greenwich Library, Debra asked if it might be possible to exhibit it there. Certainly, responded Helcia enthusiastically. Much had been sold or given away, but Debra should feel free to take a look.
Soon afterward, Helcia died and family members were invited to Easton to each choose a piece of his work before the collection moved on to its final destination — the unpublished covers to the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian, the paperwork to the National Archives at Columbia University and the oil paintings elsewhere.



Given the go-ahead, Debra Fram and fellow curators York Baker and Barbara Richards homed in on the TIME covers, moving as quickly as possible to identify subjects and dig through the tower of paperwork while the collection was still in Connecticut. The result, mounted at the Flinn last spring, was Boris Chaliapin: Faces of History, one of the most extraordinary exhibits Greenwich has ever seen.


Who was Boris Chaliapin?

First of all, he was born in Moscow in 1904, the third of eleven children of an Italian ballerina and an opera singer so renowned that there is a Feodor Chaliapin Museum filled with costumes and set designs and a Chaliapin Day still celebrated in Russia. Boris had wanted to be a singer, but his father insisted he become an artist and not stand forever in his shadow. So Boris studied sculpting in Russia, painting in Paris and was an established artist by the time he hung his first show in the United States, at the Plaza. Although he had arrived in 1935 on the same ship as his father who was visiting New York on tour, Boris paid his own way in steerage while Feodor traveled first-class. He soon became a U.S. citizen. 

A colorful personality with a wicked sense of humor, Chaliapin was a favorite at TIME and with the many celebrated fun-lovers he and Helcia invited to their Connecticut home for weekends of vodka and caviar. “He would befriend his subjects and maintain those relationships throughout his life,” Debra points out — for example, Julia Child with whom Boris traded recipes and became close friends. Between sittings the pair would go on trips to buy pickle juice for special Russian soups.

Why did these masterpieces go unpublished?

As ever, timing is everything. And TIME, being a weekly news magazine, was held hostage to the headlines of the day. To keep up with happenings, TIME commissioned Chaliapin and other artists to paint portraits to archive for its cover bank. Many were never used, but one that was published was his painting of Princess Elizabeth finished a few months before King George VI suddenly died. It quickly replaced the portrait of Anthony Eden scheduled to run on the February 25, 1952, issue.

Chaliapin’s painting of Gloria Swanson got bumped because the aging actress failed to receive what was expected to be her first Oscar, for Sunset Boulevard. And his portrait of J.P. Donleavy, whose book The Ginger Man was the basis of a play to open on Broadway on November 23, 1963, never made it because President Kennedy was assassinated the day before.

On occasion, TIME editors commissioned more than one artist to paint the same subject, then chose the one that told the story best. Or they might ask an artist to paint different people using an identical background, as Chaliapin did of the two candidates running for prime minister of Japan in 1955. Ichiro Hatoyama won the election and made the March 14 cover. Shigeru Yoshida lost and ended up in the attic in Easton.

A real perfectionist, Chaliapin often did different versions of the same subject. He painted Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers, holding various cars until he came up with a car that was generic. Fascinated with hands, he felt they expressed character. “Each hand is another face,” he said.

TIME was unhappy with his first portrait of fashion designer Sophie Gimbel so he did another. The ladies liked to be painted by Chaliapin and during that period he did most of the TIME covers featuring women. When one woman suggested he take a few years off her face in the process, he reportedly told her, “Wait. In a little while the portrait will be younger than you.”

TIME editors left little to chance

The choice of the cover is “the best and the worst part of the job,” noted one editor. Editors felt that paintings showed more character than photographs did and to this day the classic TIME cover is similar to Chaliapin’s first portrayal of India’s Jawaharlal Nehru on the August 24, 1942, issue.

Surprisingly, he painted very few cover portraits from real life — among them, Julia Child, the Empress of Iran and Golda Meir. Most were done using black and white photographs, a color guide and detailed instructions from his editors. 

For a 1962 portrait of Orville Freeman, secretary of agriculture, the editor cabled Chaliapin the color of his eyes, eyebrows, hair, glasses, coat and tie, adding, “We want him to look as if he has plenty of worries, which he has. It seems like every day another scandal is uncovered. It’s quite a mess.” For the background: “Near the bottom of the bin we could have a hole with a rat jumping out of it, and maybe two or three other rats scurrying and leaping away.” The editors included pictures of the perfect rat.

For a 1949 portrait of Washington hostess Perle Mesta, a telegram detailed her coloring, ending with, “Her face is not in the least distinctive, and she has been described, correctly, as looking like somebody’s mother.”

For a 1947 portrait of Oscar Hammerstein, known for such hit musicals as Show Boat, Oklahoma! and Carousel, Editor Dana Tasker instructed Chaliapin about the background: “Two or three musical notes with some typical Hammerstein characters sitting on the bar that ties the notes together. These characters — in miniature, of course — should include 1) a girl in old-fashioned costume, preferably carrying a parasol; 2) a cowboy holding or twirling a lariat; 3) a college youth, vintage 1925, perhaps wearing a raccoon coat and holding a flask. To these could be added a colored mammy (a la Show Boat) if you like.”  

Usually Chaliapin worked in watercolor or gouache and, when pressed, he could work incredibly fast. The night that an unknown Russian named Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, Boris and Helcia had stayed up until 4 a.m. drinking vodka to celebrate their nineteenth anniversary. At 8 a.m., TIME editors called to say they needed a portrait that very day. Even though the reference materials didn’t arrive until sunset and Boris was nursing a brutal hangover, he completed the job in a record seven hours. It became the cover of the April 21, 1961, issue.

Arrest that man

One surprising turn of events concerned the January 11, 1960, cover. Featuring the population explosion, it centered on a bare-breasted African woman nursing a child and surrounded by some thirty other figures. Noting that “three of the women were exposed from the waist up and two of the babies had lost their diapers,” Canadian police issued a warrant for the arrest of Boris Chaliapin. The cover, they said, was “pornographic and has ruined the morals of North American youth.” Said then New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller:  “I don’t know the man, but I would yield to no one in my abhorrence of these dastardly human beings who would corrupt our American heritage and let the virus of pornographic Communism seep into our red blood stream.” The F.B.I. had said that Chaliapin had been born in Russia; never mind that he was an American citizen working for TIME magazine. Managing Editor Otto Fuerbringer, a Greenwich resident and charter member of GREENWICH magazine’s editorial advisory board, wrote a memo to Tasker: “I know Rock. Can’t you call him and tell him who Boris is?”

During these exciting turbulent times, Boris Chalipian was by far the most productive of TIME cover artists. He did outside work, too, such as illustrating ads for Remington typewriters and U.S. savings bonds. But in his twenty-eight years with the weekly news magazine, he painted 419 portraits that graced its cover — a full eight years’ worth. Small wonder this extraordinary man who painted so many extraordinary people earned the nickname “Mr. TIME.”