A Look Back at JFK

Fifty years ago today, John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.  Modern Graphic History Library takes a look at how JFK has been represented through illustration.


by Robert Weaver, in April 1959 Esquire

Kennedy was a popular person for magazines to illustrate.  During his political career, magazines were sending out illustrators to “report” on events as an illustrative-equivalent to a photo journalist.

In the 1950s, magazines were already using lots of photographs, but they were having to compete against the visual images of television.  One way magazines found to differentiate themselves from black-and-white television coverage was to feature color illustrations of a topical event.  Typically, these illustrators would draw or sketch on the spot and their expressionist art style was able to capture the event in an alternate way to a photograph or television video.

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by Robert Weaver, in April 1959 Esquire

Esquire ran an article in its April 1959 issue Kennedy’s Last Chance To Be President.  The article was positive about Kennedy’s chances to become the Democratic nominee.  Robert Weaver was assigned to illustrate the story.

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by Robert Weaver, in April 1959 Esquire

Weaver would sketch on location and then choose to paint some scenes from sketches for the magazine. Other drawings were published just as black and white sketches, such as this drawing of a TV interview in front of a mock-up of the Capitol seen through a window.  Weaver includes the details of the location including the wooden supports holding up the stage window, the numbers on the clapboard, and the specific script on the teleprompter.

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by Franklin McMahon, 1960, from unknown publication

Franklin McMahon, another illustrator known for reportage drawings, covered 13 U.S. presidential elections starting with Kennedy’s in 1960. He would go on to attend every Democratic and Republican convention from through 2008.  McMahon also preferred to draw on-the-spot and was known for being able to start a drawing without first blocking out the sketch or other pre-planning.

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by Norman Rockwell, for July 14, 1964 Look

After Kennedy’s death, magazines still continued to feature articles about the slain president. During the 1964 convention season, Look ran a painting of Kennedy in the 1960 convention by Norman Rockwell.  Rockwell, who wanted to expand beyond the Americana-style drawing that the Saturday Evening Post desired, signed on to draw for Look in December 1963.

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by Bernie Fuchs, for November 19, 1965 Look

In 1965, around the two-year anniversary of the assassination, Look serialized If Kennedy Had Lived, written by JFK’s advisor and speechwriter, Ted Sorenson.  The last of the parts ran in October 19, 1965 and featured a painting by Bernie Fuchs. Fuchs had the opportunity to meet Kennedy just before the Cuban Missile Crisis.

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by Bernie Fuchs, December 12, 1964

Eight months earlier, a Fuchs’ painting of Kennedy was used as a tribute to the President in an advertisement for John Hancock Life Insurance.  Fuchs’ modern, impressionist style fit well with articles and advertisements focused on remembering the late president.

by Richard Amsel for November 12, 1963 TV Guide

Almost two decades after the assassination, a five-hour miniseries on Kennedy’s life aired on NBC, starring Martin Sheen as JFK.  TV Guide ran a cover featuring the former president and former first-lady on the week before the miniseries began airing.  The cover was illustrated by Richard Amsel, who would end up creating 40 covers for TV Guide in his lifetime.


The Weaver illustrations are part of the Robert Weaver Collection.  All other images are from the Walt Reed Illustration Archive.

Information for this blog came from:

Reed, Walt. The Illustrator in America, 1860-2000.  The Society of Illustrators, 2001.

Rockwell and Race, 1963-1968.  The Pop History Dig, 2011.

The World of Vatican II, An Artist’s Report Featuring the Paintings and Drawings of Franklin McMahon.  Catholic Theological Union, 2012.

About the author

Andrea Degener is the Visual Materials Processing Archivist in the department of Special Collections at Washington University Libraries.