My Portrait of Anwar Sadat

By the Archives

March 28, 2011

In 1977 I was in bed watching the eleven o’clock news when Anwar El Sadat came on the screen. He was standing on the prow of his presidential yacht looking imperial in his white uniform with gold braided trim. I really liked his face particularly the color of his skin. I found myself thinking about how I would mix the color...yellow ochre, raw sienna with touches of red ochre, but I was even more taken with his talk of peace and I believed him. I remember saying to my husband, “If that man makes peace in the Middle East, I’ll paint his portrait.”

Portrait of Anwar El-Sadat being painted by Audrey Flack
Audrey Flack painting a portrait of Anwar El-Sadat, 1978. Audrey Flack papers, circa 1952-2008, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

It’s hard to believe but the next morning I got a call from Time magazine asking me to paint his portrait for their forthcoming “Man of the Year” issue. I knew no one at Time; it came out of the blue. It was to be kept secret, I could tell no one.

I needed images and they sent me a group of photographs; some were even sent from Egypt. I made sketches and layouts but I’m not an illustrator, I’m a painter. I painted the sky, blending the colors of the Egyptian flag with the Israeli flag. I was intentionally subtle, as I wanted no objections. Only the very astute would notice. I loved Sadat’s face. I painted his taut skin pulled tight over his skull. It was almost mummy like.

I told Time that they could pay me for the use of the image but I would keep the painting. They agreed. One week after the magazine cover appeared, I began to get calls from Time.

“We want to buy the painting. How much?”  After numerous calls and a great deal of pressure, I suspected something was up. We negotiated a price and six months later a picture appeared on the editorial page showing a group of Time magazine officials in Egypt, handing a smiling Anwar El Sadat my painting, framed and mounted with a plaque. It seems that Sadat loved the cover and had called Time from Cairo several times, to ask if he could have it.

Anwar El-Sadat letter to Audrey Flack
Anwar El-Sadat, Cairo, Egypt letter to Audrey Flack, New York, N.Y., April, 1978. Audrey Flack papers, circa 1952-2008, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

I would have like to have met the man whose almost pharaonic presence I got to know so well when I studied his face intensely for the portrait. He did, however, kindly write a letter to me; the one that is now in the Archives of American Art. I was shocked and sad when I heard that he was assassinated several years later.

Fortunately, last year I was able to travel to Egypt on an archeological tour. I loved the people and country. While visiting an antiquarian shop I talked with its two shopkeepers, and when I mentioned that I had painted Sadat, they pulled aside a thick crimson velvet drape, behind which was hanging a photograph of Anwar Sadat. “We love him,” they said.

Audrey Flack is a painter living in New York City.

Comments

Audrey, the painting appears so realistic in the picture that it looks like you are applying makeup to Mr. Sadat. He certainly had a very expressive face that I remember well from the news when I was much younger.

As one of the most esteemed presidents of Egypt, Anwar El-Sadat influences me. Rest in peace!

Wow. Audrey. Great story and love that personal letter. May he RIP. What a great painting and so true to life. I was just in Egypt late last year and missed the uprising. I am glad to see that the Egyptians are taking over their life and government.

That is a great portrait of Anwar Sadat. Almost looks like a real photo of him.

This portrait is stunningly realistic, it's wonderful. Seeing the picture, I first thought it was a photo montage. It's incredible, the composition of the picture helps, it is not clear where the limits of the painting and it seems that the artist puts down his brush on a huge wax doll ultra-realistic.
What mastery of painting!

I have a great fondness of your work and think its awsome. I am in the painting field myself and really admire your work. I hope you keep sharing your work. Robert

It's incredible what you've done in this painting! Congrats and keep up the good work!

Wow. You decided you would paint his picture and then you got a call asking you to. That sounds like "The Secret." That's amazing that it ended up in his hands. Thanks for sharing.

As a photographer, I am always very impressed with paintings that capture an image with such clarity and depth. Thank you for sharing.

If Anwar Sadat was not assassinated, he would still be President of Egypt until today and Egypt could have been still one of the greatest countries in the world.

As one of the most esteemed presidents of Egypt, Anwar El-Sadat influences me. Rest in peace! He is so great! What u have drawn is nearly the same as him.

I have been going through your blog for a while. The kind of resources you have amassed is really praiseworthy. It certainly shows the kind of passion you have for this topic. I would love to see it updated more frequently. Carry on the good work.

As an artist and as I have seen your work truly it is an honor to do paintings especially if these paintings can give a meaningful illustration for people, object and places.

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My Portrait of Anwar Sadat - Archives of American Art Blog