Martha Greta Kempton was born in Vienna on March 22, 1903 to an Austrian mother and a British father. She created her first portrait at age 9, painting a portrait of her sleeping governess. An art teacher who recognized her precocious talent took her under her wing. Later, she became a pupil of Rauchinger and Willonce in the Vienna National Academy of Design. Around 1926, she moved to the United States. After settling in New York, Kempton studied at the National Academy of Design under Sidney Dickinson and at the Art Students League, New York City under George E. Bridgeman. Her professional career began in Long Island, when a portrait she painted of a neighborhood boy led to several commissions from other members of his family. Under the name Mrs. Martha Kempton, she exhibited a portrait titled Vera at the Salons of America in 1931. By the mid-1930s, Greta Kempton was living in California and was well-established as a painter of commissioned portraits, with Hollywood studio heads like Louis B. Mayer of MGM and Adolf Zukor of Paramount Pictures among her clients. By the end of the decade, she was back on the east coast, where she painted a portrait of New Jersey governor Harold Hoffman.
In the early 1940s, Kempton began dividing her time between New York and New Orleans, where her husband had business interests, and painted most of the city’s prominent residents. She also began painting portraits in Lynchburg, Virginia, including the wife of Senator Carter Glass, which led to her painting Senator Glass himself. Now moving in political circles, she arrived in Washington, D.C. in 1946. An introduction to Treasury Secretary John Snyder and his family led to commissions to paint Snyder’s daughter, Drucie, then Snyder himself. When the Treasury Secretary’s portrait was finished, President and Mrs. Truman were invited to a reception to see the completed work. Soon after, Kempton was asked to paint the President. After painting the President’s portrait, Kempton was next asked to do one of the President’s daughter, Margaret, and then the First Lady, a Masonic portrait of Truman, and a family portrait of all three Trumans. Kempton established a bond of friendship that lasted throughout the rest of Truman’s life.
In February 1949, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. hosted a one-woman show saluting Kempton’s works, which attracted more visitors than any exhibition by a living artist. As the 1950s dawned, Kempton had studios in New York, New Orleans and Washington D.C. She also traveled to other cities for important commissions, as she did in 1950 when she went to Chicago to paint the city’s archbishop, Cardinal Stritch. Settling in Cleveland with her new husband, she maintained ties to the art world by becoming a visiting portrait instructor at the Cooper School of Art. She was still sought after as a presidential portrait painter. Four times she was asked to paint a portrait of incoming President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and each time she declined.
In the early 1960s, Kempton lived in Hinckley, Ohio and also maintained homes and studios in New York and Santa Monica, California. Prior to the 1960s, her work had been formal, but now she began experimenting and trying new techniques, getting away from the traditional portraiture that made her famous. Her new work showed a freshness and vitality that won her new acclaim.
The Royal Society of Arts in England accepted Kempton as a Life Fellow in 1963. Kempton was also elected a Life Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, was a Life Fellow of the International Kappa Pi Art Fraternity, and a Life Member of the Empire Chapter of the National Society of Arts and Letters, Washington, D.C. In November 1964, her art was exhibited at the Art Association of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The following month, she had an exhibition at the Canton Art Institute in Ohio, attracting the largest attendance they’d ever recorded. Her work was also shown at the College of Wooster, Ohio, the Center Art Gallery in Cleveland, the Circle Gallery in Cleveland and the Akron Art League. In April 1970, her portrait of Pres. Truman was exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution. In the mid-1960s, Kempton began spending more time in New York, where she eventually settled at 14 East 75th Street, across from the Whitney Museum of American Art. In 1968, she was asked to paint a duplicate of her earlier portrait of Bess Truman for the White House collection. Later, the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum commissioned her to make a second copy to hang in the library. She continued to paint throughout the remainder of her life, including restoring paintings at the Church of the Transfiguration in New York. In 1987 she attended an exhibition of her works at the Truman Library called “Greta Kempton: 40 Years on Canvas,” showcasing thirty-two of her paintings completed between 1940 and 1987.
The following year, the Riggs Bank in Washington D.C. commissioned Kempton to paint a new portrait of President Truman, which would be hung in the newly renovated Blair House’s Truman Study. Kempton worked from original sketches she did of Truman in the Oval Office between 1947 and 1950.
Kempton died on December 10, 1991. Her body was cremated and her ashes placed in the columbarium of the Church of the Transfiguration. Her work can still be seen in the collections of the White House, the U.S. Department of the Treasury, the U.S. Supreme Court, the Truman Library, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, the National Portrait Gallery, The Pentagon, Georgetown University, the Missouri State Historical Society, the National Academy of Design in New York and numerous other institutions.
“Men Make Best Subjects, Says Woman Artist Here” (Times-Picayune, May 8, 1942) “Orleans Club to Show Art” (The New Orleans Item, June 27, 1944) “Portraits and Originals at Orleans Club Show” (The New Orleans Item, June 29, 1944) “Artist Finds Snyder ‘Very Good’ Subject” (Gazette, Little Rock, AR, April 27, 1947) “Woman Artist Paints Presidents’ Portrait for Campaign Use” (Buffalo Courier Express, Oct. 14, 1947)
“Portrait Painter” (Tulsa, OK, World, June 10, 1949)
“Latest Presidential Portrait” (Hurley, Wis. News, June 24, 1949) “Painter of President Impressed By Eyes” (July 16, 1949) “Unofficial Painter of the President” (San Francisco Chronicle, Sept. 12, 1949) “From Capital to Hinckley” (May 14, 1962) “New Neighbor in Hinckley Was – HST’s ‘Official’ Painter” (Akron Beacon Journal, Sept. 16, 1962)
"Walker, Rouault Works on Display” (Canton Repository, Nov. 29, 1964) “Portrait of an Artist” (Gazette Leader Post, Median, OH, Jan. 16, 1965) “Success Attained, She Searches On” (Canton Repository, February 15, 1965) “Greta Kempton Finds Wealth of Material in State” (Alexandria Daily Town Talk, Alexandria-Pineville, LA., June 14, 1970) "The Two Careers of America’s Court Painter" (Truman Library newsletter article by Clay Bauske)