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Mort Künstler

‘Rush’s Lancers’ by Winslow Homer, 1886; Courtesy of the Mort Kunstler Collection. Image from The Heckscher Museum of Art

By Ellen Barcel

Two related exhibits have opened at the Heckscher Museum of Art in Huntington: Normal Rockwell and Friends: American Illustrations from the Mort Künstler Collection (through March 5, 2017) and Mort Künstler: The New Nation (through April 2, 2017). Related in theme (American artists and subjects), related in exhibit time and related through American artist Mort Künstler himself, the duel exhibits complement each other perfectly.

Norman Rockwell and Friends

Norman Rockwell’s ‘A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all the world!’ (aka ‘World of Charles Dickens’), 1937; Mort Künstler Collection. Courtesy Norman Rockwell Family Agency. Image from The Heckscher Museum of Art
Norman Rockwell’s ‘A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all the world!’ (aka ‘World of Charles Dickens’), 1937; Mort Künstler Collection. Courtesy Norman Rockwell Family Agency. Image from The Heckscher Museum of Art

Mort Künstler, an American artist himself, has long collected the works of late 19th century and early 20th century artists/illustrators. The current exhibit at the Heckscher (Norman Rockwell and Friends) highlights Künstler’s collection and is unique because this is the first time these works are being shown to the public. The 75 pieces on display, such a broad variety of artists, represent 39 artists including Edwin Austin Abbey, Howard Chandler Christy, Dean Cornwell, Charles Dana Gibson, George Gross, Winslow Homer, J.C. Leyendecker, Thomas Lovell, Maxfield Parrish, Howard Pyle and, of course, Norman Rockwell.

In a recent phone interview, Künstler remarked that of the many artists he collected, he knew several personally. Thomas Lovell was “almost like a mentor” to him and George Gross “really was my mentor,” adding, “I did have the pleasure of talking to Norman Rockwell on the phone.”

Künstler’s collecting goes back to at least 1972 “or earlier,” he commented, over four decades of seeking out the best illustrators of the early 20th century. Why these particular artists? “I liked the work,” he said, from when he was in art school. Künstler stated that many of the artists were members of the Society of Illustrators, a professional organization founded in 1901. Gibson was one of its early presidents. Included in the nine founding artists were N.C. Wyeth and Howard Pyle, both in the current exhibit. The heyday of the society’s art shows was during the Roaring Twenties and Great Depression of the 1930s.

“All were illustrators,” said Künstler. “There was no TV (back when they were working). The only visuals that people got were out of magazines and newspapers. Visually, they were the ones who created the fashions. Charles Dana Gibson was the creator of the Gibson girl.” She was recognized as the personification of feminine beauty in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. “The illustrators were idolized like movie stars. They reached out to thousands of people. They were the superstars of that era.”

Why the exhibit now? “I got to know Michael Schantz, executive director at the Heckscher Museum, well. He came to lunch, visited, loved the collection. … It was time to let it go out,” said Künstler.

“One of the extraordinary things about this is that both the Künstlers allowed us to take everything off their walls, from the house. It was just an extraordinary gesture. It speaks so well of the relationship between this museum and the Küntslers,” said Schantz. “I met with him quite a few times. I recorded him for hours and hours — a record of the interesting stories, the hunt for the works, where he found them and how he found them.” He added that some of these stories are related in the information cards in the exhibit.

Mort Künstler: The New Nation

The museum also has a related exhibit, Mort Künstler: The New Nation, featuring Küntsler’s most recent work including his paintings of the early years of the United States. Künstler, who is particularly known for his Civil War paintings, reflected that his interest in American history came about because “almost all of my work was commissioned,” and frequently those commissions related to American history.

Above, ‘Washington’s Crossing: McKonkey’s Ferry, Dec. 26, 1776,’ 2011; oil on canvas, 33 × 50 in., from the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Suozzi. Image courtesy of The Heckscher Museum
Above, ‘Washington’s Crossing: McKonkey’s Ferry, Dec. 26, 1776,’ by Mort Künstler, 2011; oil on canvas, 33 × 50 in., from the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Suozzi. Image courtesy of The Heckscher Museum

“My book, ‘The New Nation’ [‘The New Nation, The Creation of the United States in Paintings and Eyewitness Accounts’] will act as the catalogue of the show,” said Künstler. “I did some of the work for the bicentennial in 1976,” then did additional paintings, he said. The book, with text by American military historian Edward G. Lengel and David H. Fischer, will be available at the museum. Künstler, who has published 10 books of his art work, now also has a children’s book series as well, “based on my paintings.” Themes of the four books include the American Revolution, the Civil War, the Wild West and World War II. The works are written by well-known historians (particularly James “Bud” Robertson) for children ages 10 to 15.

Howard Shaw, president and director of the Hammer Galleries in Manhattan, has known and worked with Künstler for more than 25 years. “Mort is considered the country’s leading historical artist,” said Shaw. “Not only has he incredible technique but he does enormous research so that even the smallest detail is accurate.” Shaw went on to relate an incident where Künstler was researching information with a number of historians for a painting he was doing. Only one was able to get back to him “one or two hours before the opening of the show. With the painting on the gallery wall, Mort repainted that particular part of an insignia,” so that it would be historically correct.

Shaw observed the joy that goes into Künstler’s work. “He told me if it ever feels like work, ‘I’ll stop doing it.’ Over 70 years he hasn’t felt he’s had a job.”

A gallery tour and talk with Mort Künstler will be held on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at the museum (inclement weather date is Jan. 19). Members are invited to attend free, for nonmembers there is a $5 charge.

The Heckscher Museum of Art, is located at 2 Prime Ave., Huntington. The museum is open Wednesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. (closed Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day). For further information, visit www.heckscher.org or call 631-351-3250.

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‘Teddy’s Fourth of July: Theodore Roosevelt in Oyster Bay’ © 2008, by Mort Künstler

By Elizabeth Kahn Kaplan

‘The Poseidon Adventure’ ©1972 by Mort Künstler
‘The Poseidon Adventure’ ©1972 by Mort Künstler

Chatting with artist Mort Künstler about his career retrospective opening at the Long Island Museum on Feb. 26, it’s hard to believe that this dynamic man will be 90 next year. The light-filled Oyster Bay home overlooking Long Island Sound he shares with his wife Deborah displays their collection of paintings by Norman Rockwell, Maxwell Parrish and other American illustrators. Deborah’s talent as an interior designer is reflected in the warm, jewel-toned rooms. The couple delights in telling how Mort approached her at Pratt Institute when she was a freshman and he a graduate student. Deborah has been Mort’s favorite model and is the final arbiter when Mort creates a very complicated painting.

After they married, they lived on Deborah’s income as a textile designer, then watched his career grow rapidly as a phenomenally successful illustrator of magazine covers, book jackets, advertisements and movie posters and then as a painter of significant moments in American history. One that they recall as the most thrilling of his long career — one moment that they were privileged to experience in person — was viewed on television by millions. It is captured perfectly in his dramatic painting “Launch of the Space Shuttle Columbia, April 12, 1981.”

‘Launch of the Space Shuttle Columbia, April 12, 1981’ © 1981 by Mort Künstler
‘Launch of the Space Shuttle Columbia, April 12, 1981’ © 1981 by Mort Künstler

Fifteen years into his successful career, he started doing work for National Geographic in Washington, D.C. “National Geographic set me on the right course to conduct thorough research and be in touch with the foremost expert on a given subject. My career as a painter of complex subjects fell into place after that.” An advertising agent brought him assignments to do historical paintings for corporate calendars and ads. “I was doing a lot of movie posters, too. They were the most exciting, highest paying art at the time. I had a lot of fun meeting movie stars, directors, and others.” His brilliantly colored, action-packed, multifigured movie poster of 1972 for “The Poseidon Adventure” is among other well-remembered posters in the exhibit.

Künstler has done a number of paintings set on Long Island, which are part of the exhibit at the Long Island Museum. Two are set during the American Revolution with the Townsend family home, which is now Raynham Hall Museum in Oyster Bay, as the backdrop. “Sally’s Valentine” portrays British Colonel John Graves Simcoe giving Sally Townsend the first known American valentine. In “The Culper Spy,” Sally’s brother, Robert Townsend, a key member of George Washington’s Setauket-based spy ring who gathered information in Manhattan, is portrayed in a candle-lit room, magnifying glass in hand reading an encrypted letter.

Mort Künstler at work in his studio. Photo by Liz Kaplan
Mort Künstler at work in his studio. Photo by Liz Kaplan

“Teddy’s Fourth of July: Theodore Roosevelt in Oyster Bay” was commissioned by Künstler’s neighbor Roger Bahnik to honor the president, whose home was in nearby Sagamore Hill. Künstler surprised Bahnik by painting him as the driver of the president’s car and his wife and children as part of the crowd. Künstler also painted Oyster Bay residents who’d won a prize offered by him to the highest bidders at an auction to raise funds for the Boys & Girls Club of Oyster Bay. The building in the background still stands at the corner of East Main and South Streets.

“I love the research. It’s like being a detective. What was the roof made of? How were the streets paved? What sort of hats would be correct?”

‘Sally’s Valentine’ © 2013 by Mort Künstler
‘Sally’s Valentine’ © 2013 by Mort Künstler

On the third floor of Künstler’s home is a costume room with a variety of hats, coats, gowns and accessories. Künstler designed a rotating platform for his workspace to allow his easel to be moved into the changing light streaming through a large skylight.

Another Long Islander commissioned “Washington’s Crossing.” Thomas R. Suozzi, the former Executive of Nassau County,  urged Künstler to undertake his version of that pivotal event of the American Revolution. The painting is a result of Künstler’s determination to provide a historically accurate representation of the subject of Emanuel Leutze’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” “That was not the kind of boat used for officers. You could not get horses and cannons in those boats; ferries were used, and the officers traveled with their horses,” said Künstler, who nonetheless considers the 1851 painting “one of the great iconic images of all time.”

‘Respect of an Army’ © 2014 by Mort Künstler
‘Respect of an Army’ © 2014 by Mort Künstler

James I. Robertson Jr., the dean of Civil War historians, has said of Künstler’s work, “To study his paintings is to simply see history alive.” Proof of this is seen in “Respect of an Army,” painted to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War.

Known for his Civil War battle scenes, for this occasion nonetheless Kunstler chose to depict that moment when peace had finally come to the divided and wounded nation. Soldiers of the victorious Union Army stand respectfully and with a certain sadness as Confederate General Robert E. Lee passes by after having surrendered his army to Union General Ulysses S. Grant inside the McLean House. It is not a scene of triumph, nor is glory given to the victors. Rather, attention is paid to the leader of the losing side that had fought with courage and tenacity but, in the end, had succumbed to a greater power.

‘The Culper Spy’ © 2013 by Mort Künstler
‘The Culper Spy’ © 2013 by Mort Künstler

“The New Nation: The History of the United States in Paintings and Eyewitness Accounts” is the latest of Künstler’s 20 books of paintings, with texts by noted historians. A series of children’s books featuring Künstler’s art, titled “See American History,” will be released this spring by Abbeville Kids. The first two will be on the American Revolution and the Civil War, followed by World War II and the Wild West in the fall. 

The name “Künstler,” which means “artist” in German, seems a validation of Mort Künstler’s choice of profession. The exhibit of over 80 of his works is a major retrospective of Kunstler’s paintings starting with childhood art through to his most recent paintings. It is not to be missed.

Mort Künstler: The Art of Adventure will be on view at the Long Island Museum, 1200 Route 25A, Stony Brook, from Feb. 26 through May 30. The community is invited to meet the artist and view the exhibit on Friday, March 18, at 5 p.m. as part of the museum’s Alive@5 series. Tickets are $15, $10 members at the door. Light refreshments will be served. For more information, visit www.longislandmuseum.org or call 631-751-0066.