In 1977 I was in bed watching the 11 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.”
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.
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.