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WORLD FOCUS: Portraits by Slayton Underhill at the Reves Center

Two portraits by Slayton Underhill, an artist who once was known as a “Master of the Hat,” are hanging now at the Reves Center for International Studies at the College of William & Mary.

According to his obituary in the Sarasota Herald Tribune, Underhill, he attained this moniker by featuring fedora-wearing models such as actors, Douglas Fairbanks and Bing Crosby, in advertisements for Stetson hats.

But his early artistic career also included illustration’s appearing in the Saturday Evening Post, Redbook, Collier and Life magazine. Two of his portraits were featured as covers of Time magazine.

Four of his portraits of former justices hang in the in the Florida Supreme Court building in Tallahassee, while across the street, at the historic Old Capitol, two portraits of former Florida governors hang on the walls.

Afterward, Underhill and his wife Barbara moved to Wilmington, New York in the Adirondack Mountains, and he became a full-time portrait painter of well-healed individuals who could afford his price tag of $5,000 for each portrait.

In an interview with the Sarasota Herald-Tribune in 1998, Underhill said he “detested” those who hired him to paint their portraits. “I couldn’t understand why people wanted to see themselves pictured on their walls.”

Two portraits, one of my wife Jaroslava and one of me painted by Underhill, and now hanging in the ornate Reves Room complementing the portraits of Wendy and Emery Reves, didn’t cost us $5,000. They were presented to us as compensation for my publicity work on Underhill’s behalf.

My portrait has an intriguing background. It portrays my face, half in light, half in dark. To symbolize a life lived dangerously. Of a Holocaust survivor who during World War II was a member of the anti-Nazi underground in Hungary, and after the war, a member of the anti-Communist underground, in Communist Czechoslovakia. Finally, he found a safe haven and happy life in America.

This life story is told in a colorful script, making up the rest of the painting.

Underhill asked me to sit for the portrait. He wanted to create something unique that would attract attention at his small studio, set up on the grounds of the famous Lake Placid horse show. The richest families of America send their children and horses there, to compete.

The painting, indeed became the talk of the horse show, and Underhill received a great number of commissions to paint the portraits of the rich and famous. That is, until a well-known New York art critic pronounced him “conventional.” His portrait commissions dried up. He, and his wife Barbara moved to Florida, and apparently, to express his bitterness, he turned his artistic attention to painting dragons and monsters.

For us, the time had come that we wanted to donate the two paintings to the College of William & Mary. It was the Reves Center for International Studies that reached out to us. We were told it would be a natural home for the portraits, considering that we were the ones who introduced Wendy Reves, the widow of my friend and mentor, Emery Reves, to the college. Her donation of $3 million at that time was the largest single donation in the college’s more than 300 years. It enabled the college, in the words of former U. S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, to “provide the best undergraduate international study in the country.”

(Frank Shatz is a former Lake Placid resident and currently lives in Williamsburg, Virginia. He is the author of “Reports from a Distant Place,” a compilation of his selected columns.)