Sunday, September 06, 2015

Portraiture at The Players

In the great scheme of art, portrait painting has long held a place of high esteem. During past centuries, the hierarchy of genres in art was topped by history painting, then portraiture. Other disciplines like landscape and still life painting were relegated to the bottom of the list. Today, history painting is a relatively uncommon pursuit but portraiture is still going strong. People who might never buy a landscape painting will commission a family portrait. For many, especially former illustrators, portrait painting is one of the ways to keep practicing art. An excellent example is Raymond Kinstler.

Mr. Kinstler began his illustration career in the 1940s, starting with comic books and later paperback covers, and then book and magazine illustrations. Kinstler broke into illustration during the golden age, drawing literally thousands of comic book panels and hundreds of magazine illustrations and book covers. But the heyday of illustration ended, necessitating a career shift during the 1950s. Mr. Kinstler has been very successful in ensuing half-century, painting well over 1000 portraits plus many other works. He has painted nearly everyone in public life, or so it seems, including people in politics, the arts, education, and other pursuits. Examples include Gene Hackman, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg In total, he has painted a half-dozen governors, even more U.S. presidents, and a number of other public officials. Although he's now past 80, Kinstler continues working.

Tony Bennett by Raymond Kinstler, 2006

Here is his portrait of Tony Bennett from 2006 showing his deft brush strokes and well-considered draftsmanship. There's a hint of drama and wisdom in the face and in the composition too. Mr. Kinstler has said that he tries very hard to see something of the psychology of the sitter, and here he succeeds admirably.

On a trip to Manhattan a few years ago, my wife and I took advantage of my membership in the Salmagundi Club of New York to have dinner at The Players, a private club in Gramercy Park. The Salmagundi Club began as an artists' sketch club in the 1870s and has continued as a club for artists of all kinds for a century and a half. Over the decades, the club has included numerous artists, including such well-knowns as N.C. Wyeth, Thomas Moran, and Louis Comfort Tiffany. Salmagundi, like many other private clubs, has reciprocity agreements, one of which is with The Players.

We wanted to visit The Players because they hold a wonderful art collection that includes work by Gilbert Stuart, John Singer Sargent, James Montgomery Flagg, Norman Rockwell, and others. In particular, The Players has a large number of works by a contemporary portraitist, Raymond Kinstler, most of which are actors. Mr. Kinstler, a member of The Players himself, maintains a  studio just next door in the National Arts Club. I had heard about the Kinstlers at the Players club and was eager to see them. Dinner seemed a reasonable beginning, so we went with our friend Beth Kurtz.

The Players is a venerable club dating to 1888 when Edwin Booth, the American actor, deeded the building (his home), its contents, his collection of art and theatrical memorabilia and his extensive personal library to The Players. The idea was to provide a convivial atmosphere in which gentlemen of the theater could mingle. It remained gentlemen only until the 1960s, when Helen Hays, then known as the first lady of theater, was inducted. Interestingly, two of its founders were Mark Twain, who lived nearby, and William Tecumseh Sherman the famous Civil War general. Since then it has served as a club for actors and theater folk. We had an excellent dinner in the downstairs Grill Room, a convivial space also lined with original art. One of the features of the room is Mark Twain's pool cue, hung in honor over the fireplace.

Christopher Plummer as Prospero by Raymond Kinstler
After dinner we wandered the upper rooms of the club, since we were told that Kinstler's works could be found in any number of them. While that was in fact true, The Players' gems of the Players' portraits by Kinstler are housed in the Kinstler Room, a large room next to the Great Hall. In this room are his paintings of Katharine Hepburn, Christopher Plummer, and James Cagney. Like so much of his work, the brushwork and approach to paint give these pictures great energy, real life. His painting of Christopher Plummer in the Shakesperean role of Prospero is striking and solid. 

There are portraits by Kinstler of  Jose Ferrer as Cyrano, a mustached Jason Robards, Alfred Drake (a well-known theater actor in the 20th century), and numerous others. One of the more important functions of portraits is to show the viewer something of the psychologic makeup of the sitter. Think of works by Rembrandt or Hals and you'll have an idea of what I mean. In many cases, portraits by the masters look as if the artist had looked into the soul of the subject. I think the picture of James Cagney, done near the end of the actor's life, does something similar, plumbing the aging process and how the man had changed from the Yankee Doodle Dandy so many remember from one of his movies.  
James Cagney by Raymond Kinstler, 1980

Overall, our visit to The Players was a memorable opportunity to see, up close, the work of an artist of enormous talent, polished skills, and  a decidedly vigorous approach to portraits. The Cagney portrait retains the freshness and vigor because it was made as a sketch for a lithograph produced to benefit the club.

There is a fascinating six-part series of videos on YouTube wherein Mr. Kinstler provided a tour:


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