Life of the Party – Giovanni DeCunto
"I told my mother when I was five years old that I was an artist," says DeCunto, sitting down to talk in his studio with an "r"-dropping accent that immediately punctures any illusion of European sophistication. He was born John Pasquale DeCunto in the decaying mill town of Lawrence; growing up, he was known as Pasquale. (He changed his name to Giovanni, his father’s name, on the advice of an art agent.) His father was a dancer in Hollywood, twirling with the likes of Rita Hayworth and Lana Turner. He married his last partner, DeCunto’s mother; when she got pregnant, she asked him to come back east.
DeCunto’s father fell ill when his son was only seven. He remained in the hospital for decades, leaving the family poor and young DeCunto defending his twin sisters from backstreet bullies. The children idealized their parents’ show-business past, creating their own dance routines after school. And indeed, DeCunto’s sisters eventually became showgirls in Las Vegas. But DeCunto himself set out on a different course: art. Even though he repeatedly was kicked out of school for spending his time drawing, he never wavered. He sold his first painting, a copy of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, to a friend’s mother for $35 when he was 12 years old.
Though he graduated near the bottom of his high school class in 1969, DeCunto received a scholarship to a commercial art school in Boston. He dropped out after a year in order to pursue the Old Masters he’d idolized growing up. For the next decade he studied their paintings relentlessly, and appealed to anyone he thought might agree to tutor him. One of those was Napoleon Setti, the Rockport artist who designed stained glass windows for the National Cathedral and New York’s St. John the Divine. "I am a hunter," says DeCunto. "I am very competitive, because if you don’t compete you never know how good you can be."
Then, in 1983, MIT hired DeCunto to do a portrait of Harold "Doc" Edgerton, the engineering professor who invented modern flash photography. "Somebody finally listened," DeCunto says. "Then I had to go back and say, ‘How the hell am I going to do this portrait?’ I was scared to death." The finished portrait, though, was more than a success: It made DeCunto’s career. Different versions of the painting found their way into the MIT Museum, the Fogg, and the Smithsonian, and DeCunto landed a scholarship to study art history at Boston University.
While there, he received a call from Rex Scouten, the curator of the White House. Scouten had seen DeCunto’s work in the Smithsonian, and told him that he was under consideration to do Ronald Reagan’s official portrait. DeCunto’s politics didn’t exactly match the president’s; still, a few weeks later, DeCunto found himself sitting across from the curator in the room next to the Oval Office. "He said, ‘How can I help you?’" remembers DeCunto. "And I said, ‘No, how can I help you? Because everything in my life has led me to this point here and now.’"
That forthrightness charmed the art lover, and while DeCunto didn’t get the Reagan portrait, Scouten did introduce him to Barbara Bush, who later commissioned him to make a painting for her literacy campaign. The piece now hangs in the George Bush Presidential Library.