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Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Mort Kunstler

The Blue and the Gray, 1982, Mort Kunstler.
Back several months ago I wrote an item on "Art Fails" detailing various incidents in which artists had made mistakes in the content of their work. They ranged from minor errors no one but the artist would notice to historical inaccuracies everybody, especially the art critics, noticed. One such error I cited was that of Emanuel Leutze in his famous Washington Crossing the Delaware, painted in 1851. For some, Leutze's errors ruined the whole painting. For others, the artist's bold rendering of Washington's heroism made all the minor departures from reality a exercise in nitpicking. In contrast, I presented a 2011 painting of the same subject by the American artist, Mort Kunstler in which the artist spent two months researching his subject in order to correct Leutze's historical errors (near the bottom of the linked page). That's why, yesterday, as I was researching another artist and stumbled over Kunstler's name, thinking I may have already written about him, I did some checking. I had, in fact, mentioned him; but not in the depth his work deserves.

The war artist who never went to war.
Mort Kunstler was born in 1927, which means he will soon be ninety years old. That's not quite old enough to remember the Civil War, but you'd never know it from his paintings. Though Kunstler has painted the battle scenes and military leaders of virtually every national conflict since the Revolution, it was the American Civil War which has brought him the greatest recognition, appreciation, and success. It was a success that didn't come easily nor quickly. Born in Brooklyn, New York, during the Great Depression, his family was Jewish, his parents from Poland and Austria. Kunstler's father was an amateur painter who, early on, recognized his young son's talent for drawing (when I say "young," I mean pre-kindergarten). His mother, a school teacher, enrolled him in Saturday afternoon classes at the Brooklyn Museum while their mornings were spent in one of New York's many art museums.

Birthing a new nation.
By the age of twelve, Kunstler claims he could draw as well as he can today. After high school he enrolled at Brooklyn College to study art, although his main focus soon shifted from art to athletics. He took up diving, was on the swimming team, became a hurdler on the track team, later earning awards for basketball, football, and track. Following induction into the Brooklyn College Sports Hall of Fame, Kunstler received a basketball scholarship from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where he continued to focus on sports. Then reality struck. his father suffered a heart attack, forcing Kunstler to return to New York to help his family. Nonetheless, he enrolled in the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. He studied to become a fine art illustrator, graduating after only three years. During his senior year he met and married his wife, Deborah, who was then a freshman at the school.

I Fought the Sea Killer, Adventure Cover, Mort Kunstler.
Art meets athletics.
The early 1950s were a terrible time for a young artist like Kunstler to start a career as an illustrator. He struggled to find work as a freelance artist in New York, pursuing assignments from book and magazine publishers. Künstler wanted to be a professional illustrator, but photography and television were replacing the need for artists. The few magazines that still relied on artists were folding. However, he did find a niche market as a freelancer for men's adventure magazines, which appreciated his art. Men's adventure magazines, still preferred having paintings made for their covers and interior illustrations. Kunstler did such work all throughout the 1950s and 60s. To make ends meet, he and his wife lived with his parents who helped support him during this difficult period. He worked twelve to fifteen-hour days, often seven days a week, from nine in the morning till ten or eleven at night.

"The Village of Amazon Man-Snatchers!" My dad used to
hide such magazines under the seat in his truck.
Don't ask me how I know.
In 1965, Kunstler received his first assignment from National Geographic Magazine. It was an illustration for a story about the history of St. Augustine, Florida. Kunstler traveled to Florida, where he spent an afternoon with the two National Park Service historians at the National Historic Site, Castillo de San Marcos, to learn whatever he could, before beginning. This attention to historical accuracy later led to assignment for Newsweek and Reader's Digest. Movie posters for a number of adventure films, such as the 1972 The Poseidon Adventure and in 1974, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three soon followed. By the early 1970s Kunstler's paintings were attracting serious art collectors. In 1975 he submitted a number of paintings to galleries. Much to his surprise, he sold every one. In 1977 his military art drew attention from still more important galleries, which enhanced his reputation as an accurate historical artist. The first major gallery to give him a one-man show was the prestigious Hammer Galleries in New York City. Over a period of several years, Kunstler would have thirteen additional one-man shows at the gallery. Armand Hammer, founder of Hammer Galleries, promoted Künstler's work, helping him to further gain stature as one of America's leading history artists.

John Hunt Morgan's Ohio Raid, Montgomery, Ohio
(northeast of Cincinnati,) July 14, 1863, Mort Kunstler.
In 1982, after getting a commission from CBS-TV to do a painting for the 3-part mini-series, The Blue and the Gray (top)Künstler's interest turned towards the Civil War. By 1988 he was concentrating almost entirely on Civil War subjects, which eventually made him the most collected Civil War artist in America. Kunstler's focus on that war led to his first one-man Civil War exhibitions at venues such as the Gettysburg National Battlefield, New York's Nassau County Museum of Art in 1998, the North Carolina Museum of History, Richmond's Museum of the Confederacy, and other centers of art and history. They included images such as that of Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg (below).

Gettysburg Address, Mort Kunstler
With each new painting, Künstler takes on the role of a historian: "I feel like I'm opening a window on a little part of history. What I try to do is create an image that will make you feel like you were there. I try to make it as accurate and as dramatic as possible." Besides Lincoln, Kunstler has painted virtually all the major military figures on both sides of the conflict as well as battle scenes and vignettes of individual soldiers as they struggled to confront the tragedy of their personal conflicts resulting from the war.

Generals Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee as seen by Kunstler.
Künstler takes a month or two to complete a painting, with many selling for over $100,000. Limited edition prints often sell out quickly. The American Print Gallery's limited edition of 4,150 of Moonlight and Magnolias was sold out in three weeks after publication. As of 2015, Künstler had painted more than 350 Civil War subjects. His later work has covered a wider range of subjects, including the Korean and Vietnam wars (below), with many paintings of World War II. He has painted historical events such as the Oklahoma Land Rush new immigrants at Ellis Island. Some experts feel that it has been Künstler's ability to humanize such moments that has distinguished his works from most other historical artists.

Candlelight and Roses, Mort Kunstler
One Man Army They Call Cong Buster,
Mort Kunstler


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