Why FDR's Portrait Was Left Unfinished

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the only United States president to serve four terms, but his last lasted just over a month. By the time Roosevelt won the presidential election in 1944, he was already in ill health. According to the Miller Center, FDR had high blood pressure and a variety of other ailments, and his declining condition was noticed by those close to him. Furthermore, he had been diagnosed with polio years earlier and had been living with the disease.

In 1921, FDR experienced lower back pain that progressed to the weakening of his legs. Physicians were called to determine the problem, and it was at that time when Roosevelt was diagnosed with polio at 39 years old, which surprised him, as polio was typically contracted by infants (via FDR Library). Rehabilitation and exercises helped his condition, but he couldn't stand or walk without support. His illnesses worsened throughout the years and in April 1945, FDR went home to recuperate in Warm Springs, Georgia, and it was there where he asked Russian-American painter Elizabeth Shoumatoff to create his portrait.

FDR's last portrait

Elizabeth Shoumatoff was a well-known artist who created portraits commissioned by prominent figures in Europe and the United States. On April 9, 1945, she headed to Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Georgia retreat — known as the Little White House — to paint a portrait of the president, per My Modern Met. On April 12, the president started the day with a headache but continued with his daily work of signing papers and reading documents while Shoumatoff worked on the president's painting.

At about 1 p.m., Roosevelt complained of a terrible headache, and he suddenly hunched down on his chair. A doctor was immediately called. The president's eyes were dilated, he had high blood pressure, and he made snoring sounds. FDR had suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage, as reported by the Digital Library of Georgia. Roosevelt was laid on his bed and medicines were administered, but the president didn't recover. He was declared dead at 3.35 p.m.

Shoumatoff was in the middle of creating the portrait when the president collapsed and died, and she was able to get the unfinished painting before leaving The Little White House.

Where is the unfinished FDR portrait?

Elizabeth Shoumatoff was adding the first few coats of color to Franklin Delano Roosevelt's painting when he collapsed. According to the artist, the president said, "We have 15 minutes more to work," before he said his final words and slumped on his chair, per the Portrait Society of Atlanta. Shoumatoff refused to be paid for the unfinished painting, and she later created a finished copy of the portrait from memory. 

Shoumatoff decided to donate the unfinished painting to the Little White House Foundation. It was then transferred to the Little White House Historic Site, Roosevelt's home, which has been preserved and turned into a museum. The original unfinished portrait is displayed in the museum, along with other FDR memorabilia. In 1990, Shoumatoff published a book titled "FDR's Unfinished Portrait: A Memoir," which chronicles her life as an artist, as well as the final moments she shared with Roosevelt before his death.