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IN 1941, when New York painter James Lechay was thirty-four, one of his paintings was awarded third prize in the prestigious American Painting Competition at the Art Institute of Chicago, which also purchased it. Ivan Albright received first prize, and Max Weber the second.

Several years later, as a result of his growing reputation, Lechay was offered a teaching position at the School of Art and Art History at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. He turned it down, and painter Stuart Edie was hired instead. But in 1945, he was again offered a position, and this time he accepted.

Lechay was hired to replace Philip Guston, who had taken a position at Washington University in St. Louis. Sculptor Humberto Albrizio was already on the Iowa faculty; and Mauricio Lasansky, who was hired the same year to teach printmaking, arrived an hour ahead of Lechay. To Lechay, to abandon the city (he had given up his New York apartment to the then unknown novelist Bernard Malamud) and move to the Midwest "was a great new experience. We found the quiet of Iowa very noisy, much more than New York. This quiet was very difficult for us, but we got used to it."

Originally, Lechay intended to stay in the Midwest for only a year. Instead, he continued to teach at the University of Iowa for three decades. When he retired in 1975, he and his wife Rose (who for many years was a librarian at the Iowa City Public Library) moved to Wellfleet, Massachusetts, where they lived until he died in 2004. 

In 1965, ten years before his retirement, Lechay was contacted by a five-member faculty committee at the State College of Iowa (soon to be the University of Northern Iowa) in Cedar Falls. Lechay was commissioned to create a portrait of J.W. (Bill) Maucker, the school’s president. The intention was to honor Maucker, who had served admirably for fifteen years. But even before he agreed to the task, Lechay cautioned the committee that “there’s going to be a lot of protest.”

 As Lechay later explained in an interview in 1995 in The Iowa Review, “I don’t like doing these commission portraits, because I feel that the portrait would have to look like me, in spite of the fact that I'd be painting Maucker. I wanted to explain [to the committee] very carefully that Maucker will be there, and there will be some resemblance, but basically it's going to be my painting, it's going to be my way. I didn’t want to add anything to the mausoleum they’ve got, all these presidents’ portraits.”

Lechay was right, there was controversy, perhaps more than he or anyone else had anticipated. In March 1966, when his completed Maucker portrait was unveiled and displayed prominently in the library, it prompted a public discussion that went on for months, with most of the debate taking place in the editorial pages of the student newspaper, The College Eye.
To a lot of people, both faculty and students, there was not enough resemblance between Lechay’s painting and its intended subject. “The first time I saw the President’s picture,” lamented sociology professor Louis Bultena, “I muttered. ‘If that looks like President Maucker, then there is no reason why it should not be said that I look like the Queen of Sheba.'" (" I have been told since," Bultena added later, "that I do bear a distinct resemblance to the Queen of Sheba, so it's all very confusing.")
Even if the painting were a sufficient likeness, it was dramatically at odds with what most people expected of a formal portrait. It was shockingly sketchy, with the figure made up of expressionist strokes of blues, grays, and browns (colors that would later prove significant), and it lacked the fastidious varnished detail of a Victorian-era Beaux Arts portrait.
Indeed, it was painted so capriciously, its critics claimed, that Maucker's left hand appeared either claw-like or mangled, the remains of a third shoulder were visible above his left, and splotches on his face could be mistaken for shaving cream. "What with all its vacuities, its poor craftsmanship, its general sloppiness, [and] its abortive character," declared the school’s influential English professor Josef Fox (in his weekly column called Obiter Scripta), the Lechay portrait of Maucker was "a wretched work of art."


More than anyone, it was Fox (an outspoken civil libertarian whom many admired in other regards) who encouraged opposition to the painting when—to everyone's surprise—on March 18, The College Eye published a one-sentence letter from Fox, which read: "I have an idea: if every student were to contribute 15 cents and every faculty member one dollar, we could buy the damn thing and burn it.” (As he later explained, not very persuasively, citizens have every right to burn their own property, especially things that they regard as unworthy of preserving.) 

As it happened, Lechay’s painting remained on public display throughout the controversy, and not once was it physically harmed. It did withstand however a volley of boisterous verbal assaults. One letter writer, for example, suggested that the art faculty should buy the painting, and that the proceeds should be used to commission a more conventional portrait. Another recommended that art selection committees in the future should represent a wider range of tastes. Others called for restraint, and asked for those who knew about art to instruct the public on how best to look at the painting.
I recall all of this very clearly because I was a sophomore art major at UNI at the time. I wrote a “column of the arts” in the student newspaper on the page opposite Fox’s column. By coincidence, I was also a student that semester in his course on aesthetics.
Dr. Fox (or Joe Fox, as students referred to him) was an unforgettable teacher, partly because of his theatrical pomposity, which he conveyed through various physical props and conspicuous mannerisms (black thick-rimmed glasses, a metal-stemmed pipe, and a resonant voice of reason) that, at least to his students, made him at once both charismatic and somewhat comical. Invariably, each class began by his asking, “Are there any questions or comments?”, while, in his lectures, he referred to the Truth as “the real hot dope.”

Many students parted company with Fox on his condemnation of the Lechay portrait of Maucker, and, even more, on his suggestion that it be burned. But we were mere undergraduates, and we had little hope of defeating him by means of a logical, formal debate.
So we chose to use our weapons, not his. We wrote and produced a satirical play (titled The Portrait of a Bona Fired Agreement: How I Learned to Stop Screaming and Love the Damned Thing: A Play to be Burned) in which the main character was a pontifical pundit named Obita Scripter, described as "a solemn and distinguished ascetic (not to be confused with aesthetic) whose only possession is the Truth." Among the other characters were the Popular Mind; Beauty; a blond seductress called the Real Hot Dope; Ralph the Red (based on Ralph Haskell, a red-bearded art professor who had publicly stood up to Fox); and a Greek Chorus of TKEs and Phi Sigs.

The play was published in The College Eye on April 15, 1966, and by the following day it had already been cast and rehearsed by the College Theatre Outcasts, with a performance scheduled for only three days later. In retrospect, the script I wrote was second-rate, but the stage performance was superb. It was directed by a theatre student named Terry Dyrland, who later became an Iowa legislator and then appeared in productions at The Old Creamery Theatre in Amana. The lead role of Obita Scripter was played by Richard Devin (who currently directs the Colorado Shakespeare Festival in Boulder), who used costume, pipe, glasses, make-up, voice, and mannerisms to make himself dauntingly similar to the real Dr. Fox. Hundreds of students flocked to the performance, which was held in the Auditorium (now called Lang Hall).

Meanwhile, back in Joe Fox's classroom, we were required to submit a major research paper on aesthetics. Defiantly, I chose to analyze the composition of the Lechay painting, complete with a sprinkling of humorous barbs. When the paper was graded and returned, Fox had given it a D, because, as he explained, he had applied the critical standards proposed in my paper to the paper itself and had found it lacking. Yet, inexplicably, I still somehow received a B as an overall course grade. (Months later, on January 15, 1967, a revised version of my analysis was published in a local paper, the Waterloo Courier, then reprinted in The College Eye in two parts on February 17 and 24.)

Ten days after the play's premiere, sobriety was restored when, at the editor's request, President Maucker published a statement in the student newspaper explaining his reactions to the portrait. His understanding, said Maucker, was that Lechay "was not simply painting a portrait of me but was making a strong protest against the stress on the dignity of the office often found in presidential portraits.” Further, he believed that the portrait conveyed a convincing likeness of him, and that the artist had captured his essence somehow: "In the face itself and the cut of the shoulders," he explained, "it looks (to me) like I feel."

“I am sorry,” continued Maucker, that “a good many of the staff and students are disappointed [by the portrait], but I think it will grow on all of us if given half a chance. I do wonder what impression it will convey to future generations of students and faculty who have had no contact with the genuine, puritanical original article—but my guess is that something more valid will get across than comes from the usual presidential portrait—and we can use photographs to show that I didn't have a mangled hand, a third shoulder, and feel sad or sinister about the shaving cream on my cheeks." And then at the end, he concluded, "I like it and am enjoying the debate."

As the semester closed, so ended the Lechay controversy. But in part, it was also defused by a talk on May 2 by the artist, who graciously agreed to come to the UNI campus and reply to provocative questions about the portrait. Gray-haired, ruggedly handsome, and eloquent, at the end of an hour Lechay had won over the overflow crowd of hundreds of faculty and students. His answers were tape-recorded, then printed almost fully in The College Eye a few days later.
“What I made was a portrait of me," he explained, "It's Maucker through Lechay." When asked about the responsibility of artists to the lay public, he responded: "I think it's terrible and arrogant of anybody to consider the public as being of low mentality. You know, write dumb, paint dumb for the public. I think you should go on the assumption that the public is intelligent and has the ability to learn and to catch on to things. So my responsibility as an artist is to do my best without compromising, knowing that the public will catch on. It always has."

Today, Lechay's once shocking painting hangs quietly on campus, largely unnoticed, in the Maucker Student Union. I visit it on occasion, and to my eye it looks even finer than it did in 1966. 

President Maucker died recently. But I had lunch with him a few years prior to that. He had retired many years earlier, but had continued to live in Cedar Falls. He was easy to recognize, because (as he was often told), as he aged, he looked increasingly like the Lechay portrait. Comparing the two, the portrait and its model, I am reminded of Pablo Picasso's reply when people complained that Gertrude Stein did not look like his portrait of her. "Don't worry," he said, "she eventually will."

Sadly, Joe Fox has passed on also. Only months after his retirement, he collapsed while mowing the lawn at his home in Peacham, Vermont. Much earlier though, in the early 1970s, when he was still teaching, I recall that I had lunch with him and John Volker (a former classmate who is also an artist). I had returned to Iowa after graduate school and a stint in the Marine Corps, and, during the conversation, I asked Joe if he had served in the military.

“Oh, yes,” he replied, “I certainly did. I signed up during the Second World War, but I didn't get the assignment I volunteered for. I wanted to be an Air Force pilot, but when I took the tests they discovered I was blue-gray colorblind. In fact, I am so colorblind," he continued, "my wife has to pick out my necktie in the morning."

Blue-gray colorblind? John and I rolled our eyes in disbelief as we motioned to one another across the table. Did he say blue-gray colorblind? The lunch continued, and we didn't say anything further to Joe about the old controversy. But as we left the Union, we paused to reflect for a moment in front of Lechay's infamous portrait of President Maucker—in which virtually all the colors consist of blues, grays, and subtle hue-mixed grays or browns.

•     •     •

For further information about the Lechay painting controversy, see Thomas H. Thompson, ed., Josef Fox: A Faith in Reason: Essays and Addresses (Cedar Falls: University of Northern Iowa / The North American Review, 1982); and Sara London, "An Interview with James Lechay" in Iowa Review Vol 25 No 1 (1995), pp. 137-148. Of help in preparing this article were Gerald Peterson, Director of the UNI Special Collections and University Archives, and the University’s Office of Marketing and Public Relations. The research was also supported in part by funding from the UNI Graduate College.

Above James Lechay, Portrait of J.W. Maucker (1966). Oil on canvas, 40 x 49 inches. Collection of the University of Northern Iowa, now on public display in the Maucker Union. Left Photograph of UNI President J.W. (Bill) Maucker, c1966. News photograph of the painter James Lechay, as he appeared on May 2, 1966, when he addressed concerns about his portrait of President Maucker before a large audience of students and faculty at the University of Northern Iowa (known then as State College of Iowa). Above left A photograph of Dr. Josef Fox, 
Professor of English at the University of 
Northern Iowa. The photograph was taken in 1965 (the year before the Maucker painting controversy), when Fox was chosen by students as Favorite Professor on campus. Note his characteristic pipe, suit and tie, and thick-rimmed glasses. Above right A publicity photograph advertising the students’ 1966 brief, satirical stage play about Joe Fox, titled The Portrait of a Bona Fired Agreement: How I Learned to Stop Screaming and Love the Damned Thing: A Play to be Burned. Seated on the right is a student dressed as Dr. Fox, reading the play as it appeared in the student newspaper (The College Eye), and looking disapprovingly at the playwright, art student Roy Behrens. The student cast as Dr. Fox was Richard Devin, who went on to become the director of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival in Boulder. A photograph of a scene from the play, showing Richard Devin as Dr. Fox, seated behind his desk, while the Real Hot Dope (played by Judy Lauer) sits on top of it. News photograph of James Lechay, as he addressed students and faculty on May 2, 1966. James Lechay’s once-controversial portrait of UNI President J.W. Maucker, as it can be seen today in the Maucker Student Union on the campus of the University of Northern Iowa. I am sorry 
[that] a good many of the staff and students are disappointed [by the Lechay portrait], but I think it will grow on all of us if given half a chance.

J.W. Maucker,
University of Northern Iowa, 1966 What with
all its vacuities, its poor craftsmanship, its general sloppiness, [and] its abortive character, [the Lechay portrait] is a wretched work of art…if every student were to contribute 15 cents and every faculty member one dollar, we could buy the damn thing and burn it.

Josef Fox,
Professor of English,
University of Northern Iowa, 1966 What I made was a portrait of me. It's Maucker through Lechay.

James Lechay,
Professor of Art,
University of Iowa, 1966 Old professors never die, they merely lose their faculties.

Stephen Fry,
The Liar I do not paint a portrait to look like the subject, rather does the person grow to look like his portrait.

Salvador Dali There are two styles of portrait painting; the serious and the smirk.

Charles Dickens,
Nicholas Nickleby If truth is beauty, how come no one has their hair done in the library?

Lily Tomlin Some time ago, we received a note from UNI alumnus Bill Girsch (BA 1969), now living in Salem OR, who sent us a parody of the Lechay portrait of Maucker (above). His rendition was completed in 1966, “at a formal dinner with Dr. Maucker and his wife in attendance. As part of the entertainment for the evening, I set out to produce a portrait of Dr. Maucker, in the style of Lechay, in under five minutes [because critics of Lechay had said that his painting looked as if it had been done in five minutes]. I was able to finish my piece in 3 minutes and 48 seconds, a record that stands today. I gave the painting to Dr. Maucker sometime later that year. He hung my work on his wall for nearly 30 years. In 1998 he found me here in Oregon and asked me to refresh his memory about how [my parody] came to be. His intention was to donate it to UNI, so that it could be hung in the Maucker Memorial Union [where it is now on view, side by side, with the original Lechay portrait].” James Lechay
Meets Josef Fox
The Maucker Portrait

an essay by Roy R. Behrens
This essay was published initially as “In the Eye of the Beholder: The James Lechay Controversy” in Tractor: Iowa Arts and Culture (Summer 1999). Copyright © by Roy R. Behrens. All rights reserved. Right The complete script of the play, as it appeared in print in The College Eye on April 15, 1966. click here
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