By Elizabeth Kahn Kaplan
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.”
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.
“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?”
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.”
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 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 [email protected] 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.