Editor's Note: Eunice Kennedy Shriver, champion for children with special needs, died on August 11 at the age of 88. In May 2009, Smithsonian reported on the unveiling of a portrait of the American icon and sister to President John F. Kennedy, and Sens. Robert and Edward Kennedy.
Seventy-five bowling lanes are jammed with spectators and families at the December 2008 Special Olympics state bowling competition in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Eleven-year-old Special Olympics athlete Sam Lenz, who has Down syndrome, picks up his bowling ball, aims carefully and throws a strike. His arms raised in victory, he high-fives his wildly cheering teammates. After the competition, Sam works his way through an adoring crowd of family and friends and stops to hug each and every one.
Sam’s joy can perhaps be attributed in part to the tireless crusade of the now 87-year-old Eunice Kennedy Shriver. In July 1968, Shriver and her husband, Sargent, opened the first national games of the Special Olympics in Chicago. As a child growing up in the famous Kennedy household, she was imbued with a passion for competition and sports. But it was from her sister Rosemary, born with an intellectual disability, that she would ultimately form her vision for the Special Olympics, which has changed the lives of millions across the world. Eunice Shriver wrote of Rosemary’s heartbreaking tragedy in the Saturday Evening Post in September 1962. “To transform promise to reality, the mentally retarded must have champions of their cause, the more so because they are unable to provide their own,” wrote Shriver. The article did much to change people’s negative attitudes about intellectual disabilities. Some say it was one of the most important contributions the Kennedys made to the nation.
Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s portrait made by Sam’s father, Milwaukee artist David Lenz, goes on view at the National Portrait Gallery this week. It represents the first time the museum has commissioned a portrait of an individual who has not served as either a president or first lady. The portrait’s prominent location, adjacent to the Smithsonian’s much-loved Hall of Presidents, pays homage not only to Mrs. Shriver, but to people like Sam Lenz.
“Mrs. Shriver has made the world a better place for Sam, and by celebrating her life,” says David Lenz, “I’m shining a spotlight on the remarkable work she’s done.”
Lenz, a photo-realist painter whose large-scale portraits of inner-city children and rural farmers have been garnering critical acclaim, won the National Portrait Gallery’s 2006 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. The artist’s prize included not only a cash award of $25,000, but also a commission from the museum to paint a “remarkable” American.
His winning entry, “Sam and the Perfect World,” depicts his son Sam in a Wisconsin field staring intently at the viewer. An enormous haloed sun shines brightly, a symbol of the divine. A barbed wire fence behind Sam separates him from the “perfect world,” says Lenz. “God is looking down on the world we’ve created, at the fence we’ve built,” explains Lenz. “Sam is not society’s accepted definition of perfection, but in spite of that, or perhaps because of that, he has an important message for everyone to hear.”
Mrs. Shriver was chosen by Lenz and Gallery staff to be his subject. Sam provided the connecting link between them. The painting was unveiled on Saturday, May 9 in a private ceremony with many of Mrs. Shriver’s family in attendance.
“I feel very honored to be recognized at the National Portrait Gallery among so many people who have made such great contributions to our nation,” says Shriver. “I hope this portrait will go beyond an image of me to become a symbol of the value and gifts of people with special needs who themselves are a great treasure to our country and who deserve much greater recognition than they ever receive.”
The painting exemplifies Lenz’s intimate and highly realistic portraits of unsung people who society has taken for granted, forgotten or overlooked. “I paint with small, round sable brushes that come to a very fine point,” says Lenz. “Applying straight oil paint over a warmly tinted canvas, I don’t mix the paint with varnishes, glazes or mediums. In many ways, the techniques and materials I use are very traditional. Closely observing everyday life, I rely upon it when deciding what to paint. I spend an enormous amount of time on each painting. Starting with small pencil and oil sketches to rough out an idea, I then photograph many of the different elements of a painting individually. These images, these bits and pieces, are refined, changed and modified as I use them as reference material to make a painting.”