Oral History Interview with
The interview refers to paintings in the exhibition, "Greta Kempton: Forty Years on Canvas," which was displayed at the Harry S. Truman Library from April 11 to October 12, 1987. The exhibition catalog is available at the library.
April 10, 1987
by Lenore Bradley and Clay Bauske
[|Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]
This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.
This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.
Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
See also Greta Kempton Papers finding aid.
For further information about the life and career of Ms. Kempton, see www.gretakempton.com.
Opened September, 2005
Harry S. Truman Library
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Oral History Interview with
April 10, 1987
by Lenore Bradley and Clay Bauske
BRADLEY: I was very interested to know more about your first tutor. Was it a woman or a man who recognized your precocious talent for drawing and told your mother that you should study with her in her studio? She herself was an artist?
KEMPTON: Yes, she really was my teacher in school in art. And she too, was very anxious for me to…and I went up Sunday mornings to her. And it was just great, no church, no nothing. I could go to my art class, and I was her only student. And she took great pain with me. I don’t mean great pain, but she devoted herself to what I was doing and to me. And then the most wonderful thing was that she took me to the museum.
BRADLEY: Right. That was my next question, because we all know how crucial those formative years are in a young artist. And she would guide you through the museums. What I would like to know is how the influence, say, of that early exposure to the masters like Rembrandt and Degas, how do you see it as manifesting itself in your own work? What was their influence in a concrete manner in your own work?
KEMPTON: Well, I don’t know. There seemed to be something that both these men did, or their conception of things that seemed to me very much mine. Of course, I could never reach such heights, or anything—please I’m not even in the same room with them. But, you know, when I first started “The Chinaman,” [“The Ancient One,” 1963] and God knows it’s an awful long time between that and the days of Rembrandt, but I couldn’t stop thinking of Rembrandt. And as a matter of fact, I started the suit in a sort of a brownish material, which this man perhaps had or used for the stage, I don’t know, because today it would look stagy. But later on I happened to go to the Metropolitan and I saw these brown things again, which I sort of, you know, I didn’t’ think about, and so there was something hung in me.
Later on I said, “Well, that was just silly, you have to look more modern,” and I changed the suit, or the coat, into this black thing that he is wearing today in this painting, and that the man would be wearing today naturally. But it’s sort of funny. And with Degas I had similar experiences. That little nude that he’s talking about, I didn’t know we got one of those photographs, I hadn’t noticed. Somebody came in just very recently and said, “Well, Degas wouldn’t have been ashamed of this.” Sort of funny, you know. But I discovered those people, not only through my—well certainly not Degas, but the Rembrandts through that teacher perhaps. But she didn’t like church, she just showed me, walked through with me. I was too young really, and I was so enthralled with some Spanish painters then. There was a—I don’t know that it was Goya—it wasn’t Goya and I don’t remember right now, but those two little boys without shoes in that painting impressed me so tremendously that until today I can’t forget it. Now, as far as Degas is concerned, I discovered him myself very much later and it was as though it was something I had lived with.
BRADLEY: Something inside you felt such great empathy for his crisp, wonderful style, or…
KEMPTON: And the colors.
BRADLEY: The colors.
KEMPTON: And the poses.
BRADLEY: And the subject matter.
BRADLEY: Then when you studied art at the Vienna Academy of Design, or of Art…
KEMPTON: Of Art, I think.
KEMPTON: Actually I spent more time with a private teacher after that. He was a man, and he taught mostly in that red coty crayon.
KEMPTON: And did a lot of…
BRADLEY: That’s a very hard medium isn’t it?
BRADLEY: Once it’s on, it’s on.
KEMPTON: Well, if you press too hard. You can rub.
BRADLEY: You can change it if you see a mistake.
KEMPTON: You can—the kneading eraser will pick it out. But you had to be very careful, he was very fussy. There must never be one little dot there that doesn’t blend right in, that isn’t perfectly smooth, you know.
BRADLEY: Well, that’s a beautiful medium. You know they say that the influence of place, of one’s native land and culture, of the whole ambiance has a great influence for life on an artist’s work. Now, have you found that? How did Vienna and growing up there and studying there when you were so young, manifest itself to you, or did it? I suppose maybe I’m asking questions here that are impossible to answer.
KEMPTON: No. I don’t know. Perhaps I just haven’t thought. I think I was very much influenced by the complete picture of Vienna. The palace, the Kaiser with his beard, I seemed always to be painting a man with a beard. And the sound of the horses through the palace, things like that I remember so well. And then the beautiful little things you see in the shop windows.
At the age of 14 I think—it could have been 12, 13, 14—my birthday was coming along and I was asked if I had something special I wanted, and I said, “Yes. I’d like a little head,” whether it was marble or something, “of maybe Wagner, or Beethoven, or somebody, that is in such and so’s store.” And sure enough, my parents thought, “she’s a little crazy, that poor child,” but they bought me a whole slew of them. And it was my prize possession up on top of my piano upright. There was the piano in my room. And little silly things like that.
I would stand for hours in front of a store that sold wool and materials for embroideries, and make my selection of what I was going to do for my mother, let’s say, for Christmas. And when I made up my mind, I took my little saved up money and went and bought the material and she got it.
BRADLEY: Looking at the works that are in this exhibition, especially up until the 1960s, I would say that you did very formal work. The compositions look formal, and I think of Vienna as a baroque city, more formal. And I think I see that in your painting. Of course, everybody who views a work of art, they’re subjective too, you know. So maybe I’m seeing things that aren’t there, but it looks…it’s got an old world flavor to it.
KEMPTON: Yes, it has. And I’ve been trying to get away from it.
BRADLEY: Oh, I see it. I see the work, especially after 1960. But for your portraits, I think that’s a beautiful style. And going back to Vienna, how did…well, that must have been an exciting time, that’s when all that foment was going on in the arts with the Viennese secessionists, but I can see that that didn’t have any….
KEMPTON: Any influence on me whatsoever.
BRADLEY: No, none.
KEMPTON: Because I wasn’t there anymore.
BRADLEY: Were you in boarding school in England, is that correct?
KEMPTON: I was in boarding school in Vienna, but I came to America.
BRADLEY: In the 1920s.
KEMPTON: Yes. I don’t know when that started, really I don’t.
BRADLEY: Oh, well, the secessionists started just sort of around the time you were born.
KEMPTON: Oh, yes, but you see, I didn’t get near that.
KEMPTON: Because in boarding school it didn’t come near me, and at home we had very formal paintings, and I think that’s where I got an awful lot, was greatly influenced. Strangely enough, we had a large painting and he [the man in the painting] had a beard. Now, whoever he was I don’t know, but that painting was my—I lived with that painting. As a little girl I would just stand there for hours and hours and hours, maybe that’s why I run after the “Chinaman.” I can’t tell you. But that painting did something to me. And we had two Jordans [or perhaps Jordaens—Jacob Jordeans, Flemish, 1593-1678], one where the—I think the wife poisons the husband or something, you know, they’re sitting around a table. And the other one, right now, I don’t even remember so well. But those figures the way they were painted—very naturalistic, of course, and very old European. And then we had some landscapes. But I think actually my paintings at home, with which I could spend more time than in museums, influenced me as much as anything.
BRADLEY: You seem to have been drawn to the human figure, and this morning I thought you made a very interesting comment when you said that most children…and it is so, I mean they find a human figure hard to draw. They usually make sticks, or they draw animals, or the moon and stars. But here you started out…
KEMPTON: With the face.
BRADLEY: Being absorbed in something so unchildlike.
KEMPTON: That’s why I brought it out, because I realized [that] myself.
BRADLEY: And the figure.
KEMPTON: I’m not so great on figures actually, it’s a struggle for me, because of my not too much study. But the head, the face…like I said, the expression, the expression in the eyes. As I look back today, I find even today—and I'm not criticizing anybody, but I just notice that portrait painters particularly, you make a round and you fill it with color, and you put a little black dot in the middle, and a highlight somewhere and go on. But that’s not an eye to me, that’s just a drawing or something.
KEMPTON: Perhaps. All eyes are the same. Very rarely do you see an eye that has really great expression in it in a painting of the average portrait painter. I think, I don’t know, I didn’t think of it sooner, because I paint as I paint period. But now that perhaps I’m not painting quite so much, I’ve been looking around a little bit and I find that empty eyes are staring out at you. I hope they don’t look that way in my paintings.
BRADLEY: I notice that most of your portraits have rather elaborate background scenery, which I like very much. They have a landscape or foliage. How important do you feel background is? And do you use it to evoke a mood or to say something about the subject of your portrait?
KEMPTON: I think both. Evoke a mood, as you call it, and possibly I know this person likes the outdoors, he loves the trees and gardens and flowers, so it fits. And then also compositionally, you don’t want a figure, usually, at least you didn’t—today it may be different—you don’t want a figure to just stand there, hang there, you know, and nothing. You put a little tree here and a little bush there, or something, and you have a composition going. And the green perhaps of the leaves of the trees gives a wonderful foil for your skin.
BRADLEY: There’s one in the exhibition where the foliage forms a frame, it’s beautiful. It forms like an oval frame around the face, and I forget which portrait, but it’s beautiful.
KEMPTON: I think there are several. I think the [picture of] President Truman—the triple portrait [“The Truman Family,” 1952, in the collection of the State Historical Society of Missouri] has foliage, and so has one of President Truman [“Harry S. Truman,” 1947, in the collection of the White House]—which one? Mostly the triple portrait has. There is another one I don’t remember.
BAUSKE: The one in the National Portrait Gallery [“Harry S. Truman,” 1970]?
KEMPTON: I think I have some there. I sometime try to get the same effect with the clouds. That’s why I like to paint this outdoor cloudy thing, because you can bring in a dark cloud, and then where you don’t need dark, you can make it light, you know, and show this is darker. You follow me?
BRADLEY: I do. Well, now, all of that’s very Renaissance also, isn’t it?
BRADLEY: It’s showing a background with landscape.
KEMPTON: Yes, I think there is that influence you asked me about, you see, which of course today is not the thing to do.
BRADLEY: Well, because it’s harder too.
KEMPTON: As a matter of fact, I told my gallery lady the other day that I had heard that somebody had been talking about me, like I said before, they’d all like to kill me. “Well, if she wants to paint landscapes, why doesn’t she paint landscapes, instead of using the portrait,” you know. Oh she was furious.
KEMPTON: She said, “They should only try, if they could do it they would.” Just about what you said.
BRADLEY: Then I also wanted to ask you about your tonalities in your works as they’ve gone through the years. I notice that the “Aviator,”  which is the earliest work we have of yours in the exhibition, has sort of a more muted tone than some of the later works. Now, have you seen a change in your attitude about your color palette?
KEMPTON: Color, yes. There’s no question about it. Yes, and as we said earlier at the table here, the color itself has changed so much. You know how garish color is today, and the manufacturers make the color garish, they want to help the young artists, you know, those enormous vile looking things, and it suits them fine. They use enormous canvases, they use up mountains of paint, and what better business can you have? And it’s very difficult to come up with something really nice and muted using that paint. Of course, it depends on the situation. That “Aviator” stands there, his plane is far away, and it is a gray day and maybe he’s wondering whether he can take off or something, and that goes through the whole painting naturally.
BRADLEY: I was going through your scrapbooks and there was a 1944 article in the New Orleans newspaper. And it said that you ordinarily start without any sketches beforehand, that you just draw right on your canvas with your brush