Two Men and a Portrait

One wondered how an artist brings paint to life. The other showed him

Thomas Buechner's portrait of Bill Zinsser. (Thomas Buechner)
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The American painter Thomas S. Buechner is best known for his portraits. His is the portrait of Alice Tully that hangs in Alice Tully Hall, in Lincoln Center, and his portrait of a teenage girl named Leslie is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In a long career of painting more than 3,000 pictures he has also found time to be the founding director of the Corning Museum of Glass, director of the Brooklyn Museum and president of Steuben Glass. He is also a teacher and a writer; his book How I Paint is a model of explanatory prose. He is also, less pertinently, my second cousin; our German-American grandmothers, Frida and Louise Scharmann, were sisters.

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Over the years Tom has occasionally asked me to be his editor, most recently on the catalog for a museum exhibition of 175 of his works that chronologically tell the story of his life as an artist. Putting that jigsaw puzzle together was a complex task, and afterward Tom said, "I don't know how to thank you." I told him I was just glad we had been able to solve the problem. Then he said, "Would you like me to do your portrait?" I said, "Oh, no." WASPs are trained not to put people to any extra trouble.

But that night my wife said, "It would be nice to have a portrait by Tom." Of course she was right, so I called Tom back, and we agreed that I would come to Corning, the city in south-central New York where he has long lived, and spend two days sitting for him.

"I'll be asking you a lot of questions," he said. That sounded ominous. I've always thought of portrait painters as unlicensed psychiatrists, using their eyes instead of their ears to read the human heart; I doubt if Rembrandt's sitters had many secrets he didn't know about. What would it be like to have my 80-year-old cousin reading my 83-year-old face and putting onto canvas what he saw written there?

I decided to bring along my reporter's notebook and do a portrait of my own. It would be a triple portrait. One would be of Tom Buechner and his methods as a portrait painter. One would be of myself as I sat and thought my thoughts of time and mortality. And the third would be of the portrait as it gradually came to life.

Corning is a small city best known as the locale of the 156-year-old Corning Glass Works. I got there by taking a six-and-a-half-hour bus ride from New York City, arriving in late afternoon. Tom picked me up at my hotel to take me to his studio. He looks like an old German professor: white beard, metal-rimmed glasses, amused blue eyes. He has looked that way since his 50s; he seems to have always wanted to look older and to feel more German than he is. He has spent the last 18 summers teaching in Germany, and one of his amusements is to paint his idea of the grotesque figures of Teutonic mythology in the operas of his favorite composer, Richard Wagner.

I, meanwhile, have always wanted to look younger than I am and to feel 100 percent American. In a lifetime of travels I've avoided the homeland of the Buechners and the Scharmanns and the Zinssers: too much anger over World War II. But otherwise Tom and I are similar in our values and are connected by a bond of trust and affection. I had no fears about putting my life in his hands.

"The first step is to take some photographs of you," he said as we drove to his house, which was tucked into a hillside several miles outside town. His studio is an extension of the house—a lofty space with an angled ceiling and a huge window that looks out on pure nature: woods, birds, deer. (My office, in mid-Manhattan, looks out on the cars and buses of Lexington Avenue.) The studio was immaculate, every paintbrush clean, every tube of paint neatly resting in its ordained place.

Hanging on one wall were several portraits of successful-looking men that Tom had recently completed. These commissions—of CEOs, board chairmen, college presidents, headmasters—are a portrait painter's meal ticket. Tom has done 327 of them, including many women and children. When the mighty chiefs retire, it is a common custom to order a likeness that will gaze down on future generations from the oak-paneled walls of clubs and boardrooms and college halls. Knowing this, the chiefs arrange their features for posterity, their visage serious, their suits and shirts and ties suitably sober.

For my portrait I was dressed in my lifelong uniform: odd jacket, pressed charcoal-gray pants, white Brooks Brothers button-down shirt, conservative tie, sneakers. Seemingly casual, the look is carefully chosen to express who I think I am.


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