Henry Strater’s Portrait of Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway / Henry Strater /  1930 / Private collection
Ernest Hemingway / Henry Strater / 1930 / Private collection

In 1954, when Ernest Hemingway (1899—1961) received the Nobel Prize for Literature, the committee cited his “mastery of the art of modern narration.” His short stories and such novels as The Sun Also Rises (1926) and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) introduced a new literary style that chronicled the disillusionment of the post-World War I “lost generation.” His terse, powerful prose subsequently became a major influence on modern American literature. Hemingway’s own experiences—reporting on foreign wars, living the bohemian life in Paris, and seeking adventures in Africa, Spain, and Cuba—fueled his imagination and helped create his larger-than-life persona.

He met the artist Henry Strater (1896—1987) when the two of them were living abroad in Paris in the early 1920s. Strater was of a similar height and weight—and the two boxed on many occasions. Strater had attended Princeton University with F. Scott Fitzgerald, and in Paris he also met Ezra Pound (whose work he illustrated) and modernist artists. Both men were part of the expatriate, bohemian world of Paris. Henry Strater painted Hemingway twice in 1922, while both were staying in Rapallo, Italy; he also made a portrait of Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley. The two paintings of Ernest Hemingway belong to the Ogunquit Museum of American Art in Maine, a museum that Strater founded. He spent long summers there for most of his life, and painted in the winter in Palm Beach, Florida. Strater shared many of Hemingway’s sporting interests, and also fished with him in Key West, Florida, where Hemingway wintered during the 1930s. A portrait created during one of those visits is on loan this year to the National Portrait Gallery in honor of the museum’s 50th anniversary. The painting depicts Hemingway with bold coloring and ruddy tanned cheeks, every bit the outdoorsman that we imagine. A few years later, in 1935, Strater and Hemingway were fishing, when Strater hooked an enormous, potentially record-breaking black marlin. After a comedy of errors during which Hemingway shot at sharks who were circling the huge fish as Strater reeled it in, causing them to attack the fish and partially devour it before it could be landed, Strater became disenchanted with Hemingway. Their friendship cooled, although they continued to write to each other occasionally. When Strater learned of Hemingway’s suicide in the summer of 1961, however, he wrote warmly about their friendship and the three portraits he had created for Art News. In the last paragraph of the article he summed up their relationship:

“Because he was a perfectionist, he was not easy to get along with at times; but he had such overpowering charm and aliveness that one was always glad to see him again the next time…. His works will always live; his old friends have their vivid memories; and I am glad that I did those three portraits.”