In a broad sense I conceive of all representational painting, every line and tone and hue of it, as portraiture. To portray a tree or a stone or a lizard, a storm cloud or a horse, a river or a rainbow, is to engage in a kind of portraiture. Each requires its own study. Each demands its own probity of form. The delineation of the human face is only one segment of the world of portraiture – but a segment of a special sort, it would seem, in which other humans with their own particular countenances feel directly involved. Practically everybody I know is an admitted authority and an appointed judge concerning the human physiognomy.


During World War II, I drew and painted many kinds of human countenances. Each subject was of my own choosing for my own reasons as a reporter, and none of the work I did was for sale, to the subject or to anyone else. In the circumstances I had the complete freedom as well as the stout obligation to render the likeness of the sitter only as I observed it and to delineate the character of the sitter only as I felt it. Good or bad, I became a most independent practitioner of the limner's trade, and by a notably easy method I have maintained that independence to this day: when the occasional portrait commission is offered to me, I decline it. I reserve portraiture for my own pleasure. I select my subjects, they don't select me…


Twice I have made exception to my rule of declining a commission to paint a portrait, once in 1948 and again in 1966. The subjects for whom I broke the rule were both men I had never seen in life. Both were dead, and greatly remembered; both were political figures; both I revered as wise men and good men. One was Benito Juàrez, the other was Sam Rayburn. One Mexican. One Texan. Painting them was like the privilege of being in their presence. Both their portraits went to government buildings in Washington.


From A Picture Gallery by Tom Lea, Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1968, pps. 152-153.



Of course, I've always been interested in portraits. I did so many of them during the war and afterwards. It gives me a good feeling about my relationship to [a person] when I put down what I feel about him [or her]. Very seldom have I done a portrait of someone who didn't actually pose for me.


I do remember one time I did a portrait from photographs. It was[after] Sam Rayburn died when they decided they would name the new congressional office building for him. They hired a sculptor to memorialize him…it's lifesize [but] it looks like Sam's a dwarf there by a fountain. And a great friend of Ewing Thomason's, Judge Gene Worley, who liked my work that I had done in the war and had read my books, said, "well, why don't we get Tom Lea to do a portrait?" And that was the way it got started. He took up a collection from congressmen that had known old Sam, and he came to me and said that they'd like to have a portrait to hang at the main entrance near the statue and that fountain.


Instead of doing it life-size, I thought, "Well, Sam should be immortalized a little larger." I did [the portrait] as I had been doing those heads in the war, almost twice life-size. I studied, oh, fifty photographs. One of the most satisfactory photographs came from Lloyd Bentsen. And he told me, "Now, this is the only picture that I think is worth a damn that I have of my friend Sam Rayburn. And you sure better get it back to me directly!" Which I did.


I worked on the portrait quite a long time and got one finished, but I destroyed it. I didn't think it was right. So I made [more] studies, particularly of the hands holding the gavel and the posture of Rayburn. He was sort of a small fellow. And this second portrait pleased me better, and I sent photographs of it to Judge Worley. They were all enthusiastic and [said], "Bring it up [to Washington, D.C.] and we're going to have a nice occasion here to dedicate the portrait." So Judge Worley got Ewing Thomason and Abby, and Lady Bird and LBJ, and Sam's kinfolks. It was quite a dedication in one of the committee rooms in the [new congressional office] building. Some guy made a political speech and everything and then they pulled the curtain and there was old Sam. Everybody liked it, which relieved me and Sarah very much.


Tom Lea talking to Adair Margo in Tom Lea, An Oral History, El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1995, pps. 122-123.