Samuel Bookatz was born on October 3, 1910, in Philadelphia. His family moved to Cleveland while he was still a child. Dedicated to a career in art early in life, Bookatz attended the John Huntington Polytechnic Institute (1928-1931), and the Cleveland School of Art (1931-1935). After graduating in 1935 with a degree in portraiture, he was awarded a scholarship to the School of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts where he studied under Alexandre Jacovleff (1935-1937). He also learned anatomy at Harvard Medical School, not to practice the healing art but to comprehend what lay hidden beneath the veneer of human skin.
After receiving an honorable mention for the Prix de Rome in 1937, he was awarded the James William Paige Scholarship, which enabled him to study first at the American Academy in Rome (1938), the Collorossi School of Fine Arts in Paris (1938-1939), and the Grande Chaumière School of Art in Paris (1938-1939). He also exhibited at the American Academy of Rome, attended by King Victor Emmanuel III. During his European sojourn as a vagabond and observer in the 1930s, he continued to paint. The European Continent was his studio--Rome, the sun-drenched Adriatic coast of Yugoslavia, Budapest on the Danube, post-Spanish Civil War Madrid, and Paris’s Rive Gauche. As Hitler threatened his way toward conquest, Bookatz returned to Cleveland where he held a one-man show at the Cleveland Institute of Art in 1940 displaying much of the work he accomplished in Europe.
As the United States entered World War II following the Pearl Harbor attack, Bookatz received an officer’s commission in the Navy working on the staff of the Navy surgeon general. If court painter had been an American institution, Bookatz would have held that title in the Roosevelt White House. Seeking an artist to document the Navy’s contributions to the war effort, Franklin D. Roosevelt sought a skilled artist. Lt. Samuel Bookatz took up residence in his new studio, the Lincoln Bedroom. “It was the most fabulous thing you can imagine,” he later recalled. “I had to paint in the corner of the room to get the best light while Mrs. Roosevelt wrote her newspaper column ‘My Day’ right next door.” His proximity to the president enabled him to capture in Conté Crayon both FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt’s portraits. In this wartime phase of his career, Bookatz also produced many portraits of Navy personnel and murals depicting World War II’s medical side.
Roosevelt died just as the European war drew to a close so Bookatz left Washington for his new assignment in plastic surgery at the naval hospital in Oakland, California. The Navy needed his skills in anatomy to help rebuild the mutilated faces of the wounded.
After the Korean War, Bookatz’s uncommon chapter ended as a documenter of war. He moved permanently to Washington, DC, where he established his headquarters. As with many other artists, his work could not be pigeonholed. He was neither wedded to a single philosophy nor medium. His stylistic periods changed as frequently as life’s chapters--from classical portraiture to abstract. Never eternally attached to canvas and oils, he also worked in acrylics, tempera, Conté Crayon, and charcoal. He sculpted concrete and plaster and applied his paints to frescoes and murals, fabric, and even tree bark. During one particularly productive winter, hotel bed sheets served as instant canvases ready to receive richly saturated colors inspired by Hawaii’s passionate lushness.
Until nearly the end of his life at age 99 (November 16, 2009), Samuel Bookatz’s creativity remained legendary. He rarely spent a day without creating art. Once, when confronted with the dilemma of war’s compatibility with art, he pointed to one of modern history’s greatest combat artists, Francisco Goya. “Goya’s canvases run with blood,” he pointed out, “yet there’s beauty there also. Look at Picasso’s Guernica. What is depicted on that canvas is horrifying, yet beautiful at the same time. One can find beauty in ugliness. There’s even beauty in the anatomical shape of an internal organ.” Samuel Bookatz found beauty in everything he observed, and he skillfully expressed those visualizations using a variety of media.
The collections of noted galleries and public buildings throughout the nation include his paintings: the Phillips Collection, the Joseph H. Hirschhorn Museum, the Smithsonian Institution, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Rochester Museum of Art, The Library of Congress, The Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, and the White House.