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Remarks at Portrait Unveiling, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center

June 26, 2013
at Zuckerman Research Center, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center

Part of the pleasure of this unveiling ceremony is the chance to celebrate the artist, Jon Friedman, and to explain the relationship I’ve had with him and his artistry over the past two decades.

Figure 1: Portrait of Frank Press, by Jon Friedman, 1995. National Academy of Sciences.

Jon’s work first came to my attention in the early 1990’s when I saw the brilliant portrait he had painted of Frank Press, when Press retired as President of the National Academy of Sciences (Figure 1). I then learned that he had done wonderful paintings of other scientists I know and was himself the son of a scientist and knowledgeable about the kinds of things scientists do.

So when it came time to select an artist to represent me after I left the NIH Directorship thirteen years ago, I asked him to do it. And because I was happy with him and with the result, I asked him to do it again after leaving MSK in 2010.

There is more to this story than just the two paintings. Working with Jon Friedman has been a collaboration conducted with an experimental method. In the process, we’ve had fun and become good friends.

A comparison of our two big experiments is instructive.

For the first portrait, I started with a very clear idea of how I wanted to appear—with a casual, informal, even rumpled look (Figure 2), while seated in front of a portion of one of my favorite paintings—the famous portrait by Jacques-Louis David of the French chemist, Lavoisier, and his wife (Figure 3). The original painting, incidentally, once hung across the street at Rockefeller University and is now in the Metropolitan Museum, but how that came to be is a much longer story, for another time.

Figure 2: Sketches for NIH portrait, Jon Friedman, 2001.

Figure 3: Portrait of Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and His Wife (Marie-Anne-Pierrette Paulze), by Jacques-Louis David, 1788.
Figure 4: Late sketch for NIH portrait, Jon Friedman, 2001-2002.
Figure 5: Finished NIH portrait, now hanging in Building One (James Shannon Building). Jon Friedman, 2002.

The portrait that Jon made for the NIH cannot be shown in the atrium in which I am now speaking, but it can be viewed in Figure 5 or on the cover of my memoir (Figure 6).

Our intention was to use the background representation of the Lavoisiers to prompt the viewer to think about some juxtapositions that influenced my life at the NIH—science and politics, science and art, science and marriage. [See remarks at 2003 NIH portrait unveiling]. These relationships are further probed in photographs that Jon took after the portrait was unveiled (Figure 7).

Figure 6: Cover of hard copy edition of my memoir. W.W.Norton and Company, 2009.
Figure 7: Photograph by Jon Friedman in his studio of a facsimile of the NIH portrait, some preparatory sketches, my spouse, Constance Casey, and me, simulating the pose of the Lavoisiers in the David portrait. (Take note of my shirt.)

Of course, my time as NIH Director was much less turbulent than Lavoisier’s during the French revolution. He was guillotined within a couple of years of being painted. I came to Memorial Sloan-Kettering.

Figure 8: Portrait for MSKCC by Jon Friedman, 2012.

I had much less precise ideas about the format of the painting we have uncovered today (Figure 8), giving Jon freer rein. I knew that I wanted to include clues about things that gave me pleasure during my time at MSKCC, but without the clutter created by the inclusiveness of a Viking funeral.

Certainly the new research building in which we are now standing would need to be evident, although Jon and I argued about how large it could be without portraying me as a figure out of an Ayn Rand novel or a real estate mogul. We agreed that some signs of my addiction to research would also be important—and not hard—to illustrate, even just as colorful data pinned to the wall. I also hoped to show some signs of the extracurricular work I did while here—developing means to publish scientific work so that it is openly accessible and promoting international science and medicine.

But it was never likely that we could adequately portray other things that meant a lot to me here:

  • our successful efforts to upgrade clinical facilities and to match changes in practice to changes in our understanding of cancer;
  • our recruitments of great people to treat patients, conduct research, and manage the institution; and
  • our shaping of the work environment to nurture esprit de corps among our staff; to better satisfy our patients; and to expand our capacity to train talented people---even to the point of launching our own graduate school.
Figure 9: The Card Players by Paul Cezanne, 1892, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

As Jon and I thought about an approach to the portrait, I recognized that many of the highlights of my time here depended on others, especially on my two partners in “The Troika”, that enjoyable threesome that Tom Kelly, Bob Wittes, and I formed after their arrival in 2002. So I suggested to Jon that he create a group portrait, the three of us around a table, a subtle allusion to Cezanne’s Card Players (a version of which also hangs in the Met; Figure 9). But my two colleagues demurred, sparing Jon a lot of extra work—even more work than capturing a famous painting by David—and relieving the Board of worrying about extra expense. So, in the end, it is just me and, in that sense, not a full picture of the era.

Figure 10: Portrait of Thomas Hardy by Augustus John, 1923, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, UK.

I expect to be asked if I am happy with the outcome. I have learned from my earlier experience that a relationship with a self-portrait grows over time. Still, I know I should say something today, and a famous writer has given me a good way to do so.

Last week, Connie and I were in Cambridge, England, at the Fitzwilliam Museum, which displays a revered portrait of the English novelist Thomas Hardy by Augustus John (Figure 10). An adjacent commentary notes Hardy’s reported reaction upon seeing the completed version in 1923: “I don’t know whether that is how I look or not, but that is definitely how I feel.”

So it is with me. Thank you, Jon, and thanks to all of you for coming.