In suburban Northern Virginia, a few blocks away from downtown Manassas, you wouldn’t guess that a world-class professional artist lives within the neighborhood. One with ties to the Kennedys, whose artwork hangs on the gallery walls of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, the Department of the Treasury and the National Museum of Women in the Arts. One whose resume could easily place her in New York City or abroad, but who chooses to stay in NoVA and support local art initiatives. For Nancy Hersch Ingram, 89, life has been colorful, full of adventure … and it isn’t slowing down quite yet.
In 1963, Nancy Hersch Ingram, a visual artist known for portrait painting, was commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy to paint her, President John F. Kennedy and their children in a classic family portrait. “It never happened,” Ingram says. “Because Jack Kennedy got shot in the head.”
When asked how the Kennedys had found out about her, Ingram casually replies, “They saw some work that I had done. I think I would have been very proud of that painting of the whole Kennedy family. That’s as big as it gets. But can you imagine your husband’s brains being in your lap? She wasn’t thinking of a portrait. And I wouldn’t have dreamt of discussing it.”
For the Manassas resident, art has always been a part of her life, taking her to far-flung corners of the world and introducing her to people whose names most only read in newspapers. “I’ve had a very busy life,” she says.
Where it All Began
Ingram credits her artistic eye to her early years, spent in her hometown of Alexandria, growing up in a historic house across from Courthouse Square. (“One house from Royal and Cameron streets, and two blocks from King Street,” she says.)
“I think that really informed my whole life,” Ingram says of growing up in the area. “My passion for design and historic houses is just from growing up in it. I walked to school from the time I was 6 years old, all through the historic district.”
Ingram graduated from George Washington High School and went on to attend the now-shuttered Abbott School of Fine and Commercial Art in Washington, DC. She also studied art at Northern Virginia Community College, and was later admitted to American University where she earned a Master of Fine Arts degree.
But why did she stay in Northern Virginia, instead of packing her bags for more “artistic” cities, like New York, San Francisco or abroad? “I married young; I married the first man I ever dated,” Ingram says. “I met him when I was 16 and he was 22, and he had two airplanes. He worked for my uncle, who ran the Manassas Regional Airport, and I married him and he was from Manassas. In fact, he had a dairy farm where George Mason University [Manassas campus] is now.”
It can be said that Ingram was born and bred in NoVA, but her art reaches further than the region.
Six Degrees of Separation
“The first time I ever painted someone important, I was very young,” Ingram says. “It was my painting of the Secretary of the Treasury, Robert B. Anderson. You can imagine, the enormous office, the big desk, the flags … he sent the car to pick me up, which had flags. I was in my 20s and I was scared to death.”
Any fear the young Ingram felt quickly faded away. “When I started, I got up my little drawing pad and started really looking at him and drawing him,” she says. “He got very uncomfortable because there’s nothing like being really looked at by someone; I mean really looking. The more uncomfortable he got, the more comfortable I got. I thought, ‘My God, I’m scaring this man.’”
Ingram’s list of people she’s painted and personally known could easily come across as name-dropping: She’s the godmother of actor Cameron Douglas’ mother, Diandra Luker; she’s mingled with, and been commissioned by, more than one Kennedy; her portfolio includes American and international politicians, U.S. Cabinet members, chief justices of the Virginia Supreme Court; and many more. But Ingram, soft-spoken and modest, usually keeps her list private—there’s surely more to it than she reveals. Yet when Ingram does open up, one gets a sense that there is so much more to the story, more tales and sights seen that those outside her circle will never hear.
“I knew Bobby [Kennedy] quite well,” says Ingram. “He’d call me and say, ‘Hey Nancy, this is the sheriff.’ He was a lovely man.” Ingram goes on to share that she knew JFK’s father, Joseph P. Kennedy, as well. “He wanted me to paint portraits. I met him through a friend. He actually took my husband and me to the races in Miami and took us out for stone crabs. He asked me to paint a portrait of one of his sons, for each of the family’s homes. It would’ve been multiple portraits. We were in contact for weeks about that; had all these negotiations about all those portraits. I was going to meet him in New York.”
The story sounds normal, businesslike, but then, a small glimpse of the fine details no one else knows: “I did not know the reputation Joe Kennedy had. Finally, my husband said, ‘Nancy, this has been going on for weeks. Has it ever occurred to you that Joe Kennedy has no idea if you can actually paint? He just wants to talk with you and be with you.’ So I decided not to go to New York. We had talked enough and I wasn’t going to do it.”
That behind-the-scenes detail is a rarity for the artist, who, with respect for her friends (famous or not) remains tight-lipped about the intimate interactions she’s had over the years.
“My friend who has known me since I was 16 said, ‘If you ever go to a psychiatrist, promise me you will never tell the truth,’” chuckles Ingram. “‘And if you tell the truth, they will put you away.’ Stories like mine … it’s not so easy to survive them. But I did see a therapist once and she said, ‘You’re so lucky. The older people who come in here say nothing’s ever happened to them.’ And I said, ‘Well, I can’t say that.’”
It may be a surprise to many that Ingram, an artist commissioned by many celebrities and politicians through the decades, doesn’t necessarily love painting portraits of them. “Professional portraits? I don’t like to do,” says Ingram. “There’s too much on the line. Someone’s ego. It has to be the way they think they look. They have to look their very best ever.”
Ingram much prefers creating, what she calls, real paintings, which can be found on the walls of her cozy, hidden-from-the-world Manassas home. They’re portraits like those of her father, shown sitting in a chair, face blurred by the strokes of the paintbrush. “Here, my father doesn’t even have a face,” she says. “And yet you have the very essence of how he sat, who he was when he was old. He’s sitting, very tired in the chair, with big, old shoes and tired hands. That’s a real painting.”
The ultimate question for Ingram, as a working artist, has always been, “How do you make people feel comfortable when you’re painting them? It’s very difficult because this is very personal,” she says.
Portraits that will hang on gallery walls in museums, at government buildings (Ingram has painted past city of Manassas mayors Douglas Waldron’s and Marvin Gillum’s portraits, which can all be found at City Hall), it’s about focusing on the personal details, but the ones that won’t upset the subject. Ingram points to a portrait of a “man who didn’t want to be painted” in her home studio. “At the end, he was so thrilled. He has lovely eyes and a nice smile,” she says. “So I featured that. But getting this is so difficult. It’s more labor. It’s very structured.”
Her worries over commissioned portraits, she says, are reminiscent of the relationship between Winston Churchill, former British prime minister, and Graham Sutherland, an English artist who was commissioned to paint a full-length portrait of Churchill in 1954. Churchill was painted sitting down, scowling, slightly slumped to the left, surrounded by dark tones. Churchilll didn’t approve and ended up destroying the painting within a year by burning it. “See, I am a good painter who is also a woman who wants to please,” says Ingram. “I don’t want to hurt people. I could do ‘real paintings,’ but they would hate it. Churchill hated the real painting by a great painter because it didn’t hide his insecurities.”
Beyond painting, Ingram is skilled in mixed media, printmaking, drawing, monoprint and sculpture. “I do abstracts and portraits and prints and they’re all very different,” Ingram says. “In fact, people will come to my house and say, ‘Oh, you have a collection from many different people.’ No, I’ve made it. I made most all of the art here. Each thing is authentic, of its own time.”
Besides her own home, Ingram’s artwork can be found in permanent collections at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery (Portrait, “Hon. Robert B. Anderson, Secretary of the Treasury”; Portrait, “Hon. Arthur S. Flemming, Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare”) and the National Museum of Women in the Arts (Lithograph, “Escape,” 2001), as well as other public and corporate collections. Her work is also displayed internationally at the Institute of Eye Microsurgery in Moscow, Russia and at Montecatini Terme, Italy’s L’Accademia D’Arte.
Ingram and her work have been around the world, but she has remained grounded in the Northern Virginia community, albeit quietly. “I have other places to go,” Ingram says. “I’ve had a house here, but I’ve lived my life elsewhere, and mostly gone under the radar here on purpose.”
Both her artwork and her philanthropic efforts can be found at the local level. Currently, Ingram is working on a portrait of Hal Parrish, the mayor of the city of Manassas, which is set to be unveiled and displayed at City Hall this summer.
Ingram also serves on multiple boards of Northern Virginia organizations, supporting the arts and preservation of historic homes. She is the vice chairman of the City of Manassas Architectural Review Board; has served as a consultant for the restoration of multiple historic residences in the region; and is a member of the advisory board for the Manassas Ballet Theatre.
Past positions have included being on the board of directors for the Center for the Arts of Greater Manassas/Prince William County; as a member of the national advisory board for the National Museum for Women in the Arts; and as a member of the board of visitors at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.
And, in a coincidence of life, Ingram is also a member of the advisory board for George Mason University’s Science and Technology Campus in Manassas, which is partially located on the same land her husband once owned as a dairy farm. “It’s sort of fun to have it right there, built right on that,” she says. “It took a full circle.”