Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Berry Gordy's Lost Portrait

Rare, faded photo of DeVon Cunningham's portrait of Berry Gordy
--washed out from a flashbulb.

Berry Gordy and Motown Records did for popular music what Henry Ford and his company did for the automobile business--they changed American culture. Coincidently as a young man, Gordy worked on Ford's assembly line and learned lessons he would apply to his music empire allowing Motown to crank out an unprecedented number of hits enriching the American songbook--bringing what was once labeled "race music" into the era of "rhythm & blues." While Henry Ford made automobiles available to the masses, Berry Gordy brought his Motown sound to a national and international audience crossing racial barriers once thought impassible.

In the late 1960s, Anna Gordy Gaye--sister of Berry and wife of Motown performer Marvin Gaye--commissioned Detroit artist DeVon Cunningham to paint a portrait of her mogul brother. The first two attempts with Berry in a shirt and tie were cast aside because Anna felt they didn't capture Berry's "spirit." When Marvin Gaye complained after losing an argument with Gordy about a creative issue, he said, "That man is a fierce warrior." That image resonated with Anna. She showed a portrait of Napoleon to Cunningham which evolved into a portrait of Berry Gordy.

Napoleon Before St. Helene by Paul Delaroche

Anna presented the portrait to her brother on October 4, 1969, at the annual Loucye Gordy Wakefield Scholarship fund raiser, enabling twenty-six inner-city high school graduates to attend college. The fundraiser was held at Gordy's Boston-Edison, tile-roofed Renaissance estate.

Mrs. Gaye maneuvered the guests into a large parlor where the huge painting hung. Artist DeVon Cunningham unveiled the four by six foot portrait before the assembled guests--including many of Detroit's glitterati. There it was, Berry Gordy with an imperious look of command on his face as a Black Napoleon. Berry took one incredulous look and broke into laughter. Cunningham remembers him saying, "Damn, I like it."

Gordy displayed the portrait in his Detroit mansion for years before moving to Beverly Hills, California to expand Motown into the movie business. When the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institute sought to locate the painting to verify its condition and ownership for their catalog of important American portraits, Berry Gordy could not be reached for comment, but his publicist stonewalled the researchers about the whereabouts of the portrait.

"The Smithsonian has been searching for almost two years," said Bethany Bentley--National Portrait Gallery spokesperson. "Getting on the list can lead to art museums requesting pieces for exhibits." The National Portrait Gallery gave up searching for the portrait but listed it anyway marking its location as "unknown."

Artist DeVon Cunningham talking about his "docu-art" in 2017

Artist DeVon Cunningham hasn't seen the portrait since he painted it. When interviewed by the Detroit News, Cunningham said he spoke to several of Gordy's associates who told him someone put it in Berry's head that it's not a compliment to be shown as Napoleon. After several books came out critical of Gordy and his Motown hit factory, he was concerned with his legacy and may have had the portrait destroyed.

If true, Cunningham was deprived of the public exposure and acclaim the National Portrait Gallery listing would have surely brought him. 

DeVon Cunningham speaks about his art

Hitsville USA 


  1. I hope it was just stored somewhere and will be "found" some day. DeVon Cunningham deserves the recognition!

  2. Yes he does. But DeVon has other notable achievements.

  3. There is a beautiful collection of his art at D’Mongo’s Cafe.

  4. What a great blog....people now know the story behind the painting. Thanks, Greg. I, too, have seen his docuart at Cafe D'Mongo. It is not to be missed. Great art, great drinks, great people. What more could you ask for?!

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