American Tragedy, Gustav Likan



I chose this painting because I used to have a print of it in my home, the original is in the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, TX.  Every time I see it, it immediately brings me back to seeing this scene of President Kennedy’s funeral procession on TV; with the entire nation still in shock and mourning over the series of events that took place over those few days in late November of 1963.   The first thing I see is Mrs. Kennedy’s frozen stare and grief stricken face.  While she demonstrated strength and dignity that helped the nation begin to heal. The two young Kennedy children, the funeral was on John Jr’s 3rd birthday and just a few days before Caroline turned six, were too young to understand the tragic loss to their family and the loss of innocence which these events befell them and the entire nation.

I see a style similar to the Impressionists of the late 19th century; Likan’s painting represents his impressions of this day.   Other than the pale blank faces of the family, and the touches of white handkerchiefs used to delineate the outline of their hands. The top half of the painting is of the family in the formless mass of their black clothing, the stark leafless trees and grey overcast skies.  Which reflected the emotions of the day.  I was always struck by how Likan could convey the grief and emotion in their eyes with just a black spot or grey triangle.

Thinking of this time in our nation’s history, the flagged draped coffin also reminds me of all of the nearly 60,000 veterans who would soon be coming home over the following ten years after they also sacrificed their lives for their nation.  The casket slowly moving past the family on the same caisson used to carry the casket of Abraham Lincoln after his equally tragic death one hundred years earlier.

The cool color of the children’s sky blue coats could represent the innocence of a new born baby wrapped in a pale blue blanket.  It reminds us that life will go on and with a new dawn the skies will clear on a new and happier day.

This painting is unlike any other I have seen by the artist Gustav Likan, (1912-1998). He was teaching at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts at the time he painted “American Tragedy”.  He was known as the “Father of acrylics”, and his paintings were usually very alive, with the most vibrant colors.

John Brady


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