At 10 different portrait unveilings on Capitol Hill, a man named Charles J. Fox was praised as the artist who captured the sitter’s likeness. Fox didn’t immediately fit the image of an artist in mid-century America—an unkempt genius in a beret and paint-splattered smock. Instead, he looked like a prosperous businessman with a well-tailored suit and receding hairline. Nor did he look like a sophisticated aesthete, although a promotional pamphlet described him as “the son of a well-known Austrian artist whose subjects were European royalty and continental society.”
The only problem was that Charles J. Fox was not the true identity of the artist.
Fox's name wasn’t even Charles; it was Leo Fox, and he was an entrepreneur and son of an artist who had died in 1944. While Fox attended the unveilings, a painter named Irving Resnikoff worked alone in a New York studio, creating portraits that would enter the House Collection signed as CJ Fox. Resnikoff, an unknown, emigré artist who had fled Russia during the 1917 revolution, spent most of his career in obscurity. Unable to make a living from his abstract paintings, he worked for Fox, completing commissions of portraits of prominent Americans. Fox’s first contact with Congress was in 1943, when he proposed a government portrait commission. Eventually, Resnikoff, at the behest of Fox, painted portraits of a Minority Leader and nine different chairmen, concluding with Judiciary Committee Chairman Peter Rodino in 1977.
Irving Resnikoff was much closer to Americans’ idea of what a glamorous European painter should look like. His niece recalled him as a tall, debonair figure, who “carried himself like a movie star with a mustache like Robert Taylor, a straight pipe between his teeth like Jimmy Stewart, dressed in tweeds like Fred Astaire.” Resnikoff had a bit of the paint-spattered smock about him, too. He trained as a Cubist painter in Russia, and in America, he lived among his paints and canvases at Sherman Square Studios, a veritable artists’ colony in the middle of Manhattan. His little niece visited often, and in later years wrote about the allure of the setting. “The studio, so mysterious, was thick with sensations—for my nose, the smells of turpentine and linseed oil; for my ears, the muffled sounds of a lady’s voice singing scales down the dark hall in the next apartment.”
Resnikoff remained a shadowy presence, despite the hundreds of official portraits by his hand. He was little understood as a portraitist, and he was never ballyhooed at portrait unveilings as the artist behind the “CJ Fox” signature. Resnikoff’s training was in the avant-garde styles of Europe, but for Fox, he adopted the placid portraiture of official America. The artist never met his subjects. He worked instead from a single photograph. A family visitor recalled seeing him at work, using “a tiny photograph tacked up in front of a Sherlock Holmes type magnifying glass clamped on to a stand.” In some cases, the original source for a House of Representatives portrait survived. They were often a Member of Congress’ standard headshot. Resnikoff would render the head and shoulders from the photograph. He used other images of hands and backgrounds to fill out the painting. He signed each one with a small, tidy “CJ Fox.”
It took 30 years for the truth to come out about the man behind hundreds of paintings with a red “CJ Fox” signature, residing in collections across the country. Resnikoff’s behind-the-scenes role was revealed in 1978, when the IRS presented Fox with a bill for back taxes. Fox contested the $40,000, saying he didn't have to pay the higher rate because he operated as a corporation, not an individual artist, and that he did not - could not - paint portraits. In an affadavit, Resnikoff concurred and said that he had been employed as the artist behind the Fox name for 40 years. The court documents and family reminiscences offer a glimpse into the enigmatic artist’s working style. Leo Fox paid Resnikoff between $250 and $300 to complete each commission he secured for 20 times as much. In his affidavit, Fox recounted the huge number of portraits the artist produced: 58 in one year alone.
Resnikoff's pay was cut-rate, but eventually he and his wife saved enough to move from his studio to an apartment nearby. His relative prosperity allowed him to return to his early forward-thinking taste. Relatives recalled “white carpeting and blond furniture. Sunken living room, treasures collected from their many trips across country and Mexico, white princess phone and Chanel #5 and Evening In Paris in the bedroom.” Nonetheless, he made the trek every day to his old studio, coated in a patina of tobacco and linseed oil, where for decades statesmen were immortalized by “CJ Fox.”
Sources: Washington Post, June 23, 1961; Promotional brochure for "Charles J. Fox, Portrait Artist," c. 1958; 1940 United State Census; Baltimore Sun, March 1, 1978; Norma Reznikoff/Goodridge Furman, Risky Changes (N.p., CreateSpace: 2014).Follow @USHouseHistory