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Ali, Marilyn, Jackie and Mr. TIME: The cover artist who helped define a magazine

Originally from Russia, Boris Chaliapan's more than 400 covers for the weekly captured the news of the day

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“If TIME had a beguiling woman that was going to make the cover, it often went to Boris Chaliapan,” says curator Jim Barber. Marilyn Monroe by Boris Chaliapan. 1956. Courtesy of the Estate of Marilyn Monroe, National Portrait Gallery

Fifty years ago on May 17, 1963, TIME magazine put James Baldwin on the cover with the story “Birmingham and Beyond: The Negro’s Push for Equality.” And to create his portrait, the weekly called on artist Boris Chaliapan. Baldwin’s intense eyes and pensive expression stared out from newsstands across the country.

“Chaliapan,” explains National Portrait Gallery curator Jim Barber, “tried to capture the essence of a person and their personality.” Though the magazine had contracts with a dozen or so other cover artists, Chaliapan was part of the prominent threesome dubbed the “ABC’s” with artists Boris Artzybasheff and Ernest Hamlin Baker. Known for his spot-on likenesses, Chaliapan could also be counted on for a quick turnaround. “Unlike the other cover artists that needed a week or two, Chaliapan…if pressed, he could crank out covers in two or three days,” says Barber.

Over his nearly 30 year career with TIME, Chaliapan produced more than 400 covers and earned the nickname “Mr. TIME.” He portrayed the day’s biggest stars and helped illustrate each week’s cover story with a fresh portrait.

Born in Russia, Chaliapan trained as an artist there before journeying to Paris, France to continue his education. Eventually making his way to the United States, he found work with TIME magazine and in 1942 produced his first cover for them of a WWII general. Chaliapan often worked from photographs to create his covers, made with watercolors, tempera, pencil and other materials. Other than his speed and technical skill, Chaliapan was known for his portraits of beguiling starlets like Marilyn Monroe and Grace Kelly.

From the National Portrait Gallery’s more than 300 Chaliapan covers, Barber selected 26 for a new exhibit, Mr. TIME: Portraits by Boris Chaliapan,” opening Friday, May 17. “I wanted to show Chaliapan’s entire career,” says Barber.

By the end of that career, painted portraits were on their way out for magazine covers. Photographs and more thematic illustrations were being used more frequently. Chaliapan’s covers capture a snapshot of the news from days gone by, but also of the news industry itself. His final cover was of President Nixon in 1970.

Alfred Caplin, better known as Al Capp and the creator of comic Li’l Abner, made the cover in 1950 and was joined by two of his characters. “According to the cover story, Capp in 1950 was making $300,000 a year, he was being read by 38 million fans in 700 U.S. newspapers,” explains Barber. By Boris Chaliapan. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

A personal favorite of Jim Barber, this cover illustration of tennis star Althea Gibson shows the layers of the artist’s process, building up from the court, to the racket, to the lines and then to the portrait itself. By Boris Chaliapan. 1957. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

The much-adored First Lady made the cover of the issue announcing Kennedy’s election. “It’s all in the details, that’s what makes these covers so fun,” says Barber, pointing to the baby carriage that symbolized their recently born son, John-John. By Boris Chaliapan. 1960-61. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

Known for his quick wit as much as his quick jab, Cassius Clay (who would later change his name to Muhammad Ali) made the cover in 1963 with a book of poetry referencing his playful poetic taunts launched at his opponents. By Boris Chaliapan. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

Chaliapan actually got to visit with Julia Child, swapping recipes, for this 1966 cover. But the results did not delight everyone, including one reader who compared the chef circled by floating pans and a fish to the “first apparition in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.” By Boris Chaliapan. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

Mr. TIME: Portraits by Boris Chaliapan” is on view at the National Portrait Gallery through January 5, 2014.

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About Leah Binkovitz
Leah Binkovitz

Leah Binkovitz is a Stone & Holt Weeks Fellow at Washington Post and NPR. Previously, she was a contributing writer and editorial intern for the At the Smithsonian section of Smithsonian magazine.

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