Elizabeth Taylor / Violet Visionary Art Outsiders original acrylic on board by Tennessee Loveless captures the beautiful spirit of the humanitarian actress.
Elizabeth Taylor became a legend of the silver screen, was famed for her beauty and her intense relationships with men and her business acumen, but has ultimately left a lasting legacy with her humanitarianism and charity work, through The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation (ETAF).
Elizabeth was born February 27, 1932 in London, England, to wealthy parents. Her father was an art dealer and her mother was a retired actress. She moved to Los Angeles in 1939, where her mother was often told her beautiful child should be in film. A genetic mutation caused a double rim of eyelashes and eyes so blue they appeared violet. While her father’s Beverly Hills art gallery gained clients in the film industry, Elizabeth auditioned for several studios, and accepted a contract with Universal at the age of 9. She was not often cast, because she had an extremely direct manner and a very wise look about her which belied her age. In 1943, MGM cast her in Lassie Come Home, and she began steady work at that studio, including being cast in National Velvet in 1942, opposite Mickey Rooney. It found great success upon its release at Christmas 1944.
MGM tried to control every aspect of her life, working her and grooming her from early morning through to her bedtime, and while she and her parents pushed back when they could, the movie marketing machine manipulated her image from young ingenue to brilliant, popular starlet. When Taylor married hotel heir Conrad Hilton, she had to take part in a very public, highly publicized ceremony. They also utilized her physical beauty by casting her as the spoiled socialite in A Place in the Sun, but she surprised everyone by showing herself a talented actress, getting rave reviews. One critic said she gave “a shaded, tender performance and one in which her passionate and genuine romance avoids the bathos common to young love as it sometimes comes to the screen.” Still others credited the director, not her, for her work onscreen. That misapplied credit would continue throughout her career, largely because the idea that an actress could be smart, talented and beautiful all at once was a notion not widely accepted in Hollywood. If she was successful, it was the machine, or the man behind the artist to which they always pointed.
Taylor was, however, made of sterner stuff than anyone imagined. She began to prove her abilities repeatedly in movies like Giant, Raintree County (for which she got her first Oscar nomination), and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, on which she was forced to work in the weeks after her husband Mike Todd had been killed in a plane crash. She was also nominated for that film. She continued her streak of showing her talent, albeit always in films in which her sex appeal was leveraged, in Suddenly, Last Summer, and Butterfield 8, for which she finally won an Oscar. Taylor is often said to be at her career best in 1966’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, for which she had to use makeup and gain weight to play 50-year-old Martha. This was unheard of for any actress part of the Hollywood system.
After largely retiring from the screen, Taylor turned her attention to HIV/AIDS activism, one of the first A-list celebrities to publicly do so. She had been concerned and involved since the early days of the disease, beginning her philanthropic work in 1984. She found joy in finally putting her fame, which had plagued her through her personal life, her losses, and marriages, to valuable use. In 1991, she started the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, (ETAF) to raise awareness and provide support for those suffering with the disease. Gratefully, her skill as a businesswoman came to bear when she collaborated with Elizabeth Arden in creating a collection of fragrances. In combination, her 11 different perfumes made more money than her entire career as an actress. The money from their success, as well as that of other ventures and a long career as an actress (which included a record-breaking payday for her role in the ill-fated Cleopatra) continues to benefit ETAF to this day.
While I knew of Elizabeth Taylor for most of my youth, my first encounters watching her did not come from the sultry laden films of her femme fetale presence, nor her soft lit campy commercials of her “White Diamonds” perfume. My first real encounter with seeing her incredible presence was watching “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”, a movie that still haunts me to this day. My obsession with her incredible acting skills led me down the violet eyed rabbit hole of her other films, and I.. in the end was transfixed.
Rewind to a year ago, and I was traveling up from Washington D.C. to New York City via bus. By strange coincidence, my assigned seat was next to an actor named Daniel Franzese, who I knew out in Los Angeles when he was curating a show I was a part of called “Cartoon Nation” with the World of Wonder Gallery. He mentioned he was in D.C. as the ambassador for the Elizabeth Taylor Foundation, and I pitched the idea of doing an “Art Outsiders” portrait for the organization. A year later and here I am painting someone who I found so wonderfully powerful, and used her talent, money, and life to dedicating her support in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
Elizabeth Taylor was not just a powerhouse in Hollywood, but a powerhouse in advocacy. She was and will always be a savior to those in need. There is no greater legacy.