August 31, 1927 |
Brooklyn, New York, U.S.
|Occupation||Illustrator, historical artist|
|Known for||magazine and book covers; historical art, Civil War art|
Mort Künstler (born August 28, 1927) is an American artist known for his illustrative paintings of historical events, especially of the American Civil War. He was a child prodigy, who, with encouragement from his parents, became a skilled artist by the time he was twelve. Today he is considered the "best-known and most respected historical artist in the country."
Künstler began his career in the 1950s as a freelance artist, illustrating paperback book covers and men's adventure magazines. In 1965 he was commissioned by National Geographic to create what became his first historic painting. He also created posters for movies such as The Poseidon Adventure and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. And by the 1970s he was painting covers for Newsweek, Reader's Digest, and other magazines, with the bulk of his work during that period in advertising art.
While many of his early magazine illustrations were for public entertainment, Künstler eventually began creating military art. In 1977, his first major gallery exhibition brought new attention to his talents as a historical artist. By the 1980s he was acclaimed as America's foremost Civil War artist, and would eventually create over 350 Civil War paintings alone. Some of his paintings have changed opinions about the accuracy of early famous paintings by others, such as Emmanuel Leutze's famous "Washington Crossing the Delaware." Besides his Civil War paintings, he created historical art of the American Revolution through the Korean and Vietnam wars, along with paintings of World War II. He painted historical events such as the Oklahoma Land Rush and new immigrants on Ellis Island.
Collections of Künstler's work are published as limited-edition prints, and his artistic output places him at the forefront of contemporary historical realism. NASA made him their official artist for the space shuttle Columbia. In 1982 CBS-TV had him do a painting for the 3-part mini-series, The Blue and the Gray, and in 1993 a one-hour television special, Images of the Civil War - The Paintings of Mort Künstler, was shown on the A&E TV network. He has received numerous honors and awards, and at least nine books are dedicated to featuring his artwork. Some experts see him as the next Norman Rockwell.
Early years and education
Künstler was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1927 and raised there during the Great Depression. His parents had Polish and Austrian roots and were of Jewish heritage. Their name derived from the German word "künstler," which means "artist." His great-grandfather was given that name by the[which?] Tsar of Russia as thanks after he created a carving of him when he ruled Germany[when?].
His father was an amateur artist, and both his parents saw his artistic talent at the age of two and a half. His father encouraged his son, who was often home sick, by setting up still lifes for him to draw. His mother also encouraged his budding talent by enrolling him in Saturday classes at the Brooklyn Museum. He said "My mother was a schoolteacher, and she would take me to the museums by subway every Saturday morning."
By the time he was in kindergarten he could already "draw very well," he says. And when he was twelve, he adds, "I could draw almost as well as I can today." His talent in art was further supported when he was at Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn. There, he along with a number of classmates, were inspired by their art teacher, Leon Friend, who had also written a book on graphic design.
After graduating high school he enrolled at Brooklyn College to study art, although his main focus changed away from art and instead toward athletics. He was diver on the swimming team and a hurdler on the track team, and sports now dominated his life. He earned awards for basketball, diving, football and track, and ultimate honors in the Brooklyn College Sports Hall of Fame. He then received a basketball scholarship from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where he continued to focus on sports.
But after his father suffered a heart attack, he returned to New York to help his family, and enrolled in the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. He studied to become a fine art illustrator, and graduated after three years. During his senior year he met his wife-to-be, Deborah, who was then a freshman at the school. They married soon after he graduated.
After graduating from Pratt he worked as a freelance artist in New York, where he tried to get assignments from book and magazine publishers. That goal became difficult at the time, which led him to work instead as an apprentice at a studio, where he ran errands, cleaned up and touched up paintings by other artists. Künstler wanted to be a professional illustrator, but discovered that the early 1950s was a bad time to enter the field, since photography and television were replacing the need for artists. And the few magazines that still relied on artists were folding.
However, he did find a niche market as a freelancer for adventure magazines, which still appreciated his art: “Fortunately for me and other artists, some of them, like the men’s adventure magazines, would still prefer having paintings made for their covers and interior illustrations.” He continued doing those throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s. Although to make ends meet he had to live with his parents who supported him during this early period: “I worked 12 hour days, 15 hour days, sometimes seven days a week. Almost always six days a week, from nine o’clock in the morning to ten or eleven at night.”
Eventually he began to share a studio with another already established adventure artist, George Gross, whose family was friends with his. “I used to call him Uncle George and I chose him as my mentor.” George, 22-years his senior, had also attended Pratt Institute, and his father had a successful art career. As a result, says Künstler, “I wasn’t just a kid working out of his house anymore... George sort of took me under his wing, and he taught me whatever he could. It was a wonderful thing for me.”
Künstler began working full-time as a freelance artist, illustrating magazine covers and paperback fiction adventure books, typically oriented toward men, such as Sports Afield, Outdoor Life, and Stag. Künstler credits the experience gained from illustrating men’s adventure magazines in the 1950s and 1960s with teaching him how to compose and tell a story, which he says prepared him for his later work.
He received his first assignment to do a historic painting from National Geographic magazine in 1965. He was to paint an illustration for a story about the history of St. Augustine, Florida. He traveled to Florida, 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. Künstler's later historical paintings would also rely on collaboration with experts who would guide and provide him with the historic facts he needed before beginning.
In the 1970s Künstler painted covers for Newsweek, Reader's Digest and other magazines, although the bulk of his work during this period came from doing advertising art. He also did the box covers for Aurora models.
He illustrated a number of movie posters for adventure films, such as The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974). Künstler created the illustration for a 1976 MAD Magazine cover which parodied the movie Jaws and comic art depicting women's liberation.
By the early 1970s his paintings were attracting the attention of serious art collectors, which led him to begin retaining the reproduction rights to his original paintings. In 1975 he submitted a number of paintings to galleries, all of which sold, to his surprise. In 1977 his military art drew attention from even more important galleries, which made him widely recognized 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. He would have 13 additional one-man shows at the gallery in subsequent years, while his work was also being exhibited in museums nationwide. Armand Hammer, founder of Hammer Galleries, supported, encouraged and promoted Künstler's work, helping him become recognized as one of America's leading historical artists. Hammer said "his paintings have continually confirmed his talent, and the caliber of Künstler's overall artistic output has now placed him at the forefront of contemporary realism."
As a result of major galleries and museums exhibiting his work, his career soon took on new dimensions. From his early popularity as an illustrator for pulp and popular magazines, then to movie posters, National Geographic images, and now to fine art historical paintings and prints, along with books of images, he was acknowledged as one of the few remaining artists of historical subjects.
1980 to present
In 1982, after getting a commission from CBS-TV to do a painting for the 3-part mini-series, The Blue and the Gray (televised November 1982,) 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.”
His focus on that war led to him having the 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 of Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg,
His exhibition at the Nassau County Museum, which lasted seven weeks, attracted more than 30,000 visitors, surpassing the previous attendance record set by a Picasso exhibit. The success of that exhibit led the museum to hold a second one-man exhibit of his work in 2006.
To create his paintings he undertook careful and painstaking research into the settings and events he would paint. It meant he needed to consult with expert historians and walk the actual battlefields before drawing them, always looking for landmarks to incorporate into the artwork. This obsession to detail, he says, came from his experience illustrating men's magazines and his work for National Geographic.
In preparation for his 1992 painting, “The Gunner and the Colonel,” for instance, he researched the exact uniforms the soldier's wore and even the weather on that day, to learn which way the wind was blowing so the flags were unfurled in the right direction. With each new painting, Künstler says he 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.
His battle of Gettysburg painting, titled “High Water Mark,” was unveiled at the Gettysburg Battlefield Museum on the 125th anniversary of that climactic confrontation. The original was reproduced with 750,000 limited-edition prints, all of which sold out after two months. But Künstler also painted individual soldiers in periods of personal crisis, as he did of Stonewall Jackson after Jackson learned that a close friend's 5-year-old daughter had died.
With collections of his work published as limited edition prints and sold nationwide. Historians including James M. McPherson would state:
Of all the artists working in the Civil War field, none captures the human element, the aura of leadership, the sense of being there and sharing in the drama, quite like Mort Künstler.
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. By 2015, Künstler had painted more than 350 Civil War subjects. He painted his final Civil War painting in 2015, depicting the end of the war, titled "LaGrange vs. LaGrange."
Some of his paintings have revised opinions of many about the accuracy of earlier paintings by others. One of Kunstler's more recent paintings has, according to recent historians, corrected some obvious inaccuracies of one America's most famous, the 1851 painting by Emmanuel Leutze, "Washington Crossing the Delaware", depicting Washington's 1776 surprise attack on the 30,000 German soldiers who were fighting for the British.
Künstler devoted two months of research with the aid of military experts and historians, besides visiting the location himself, before completing the painting in 2011, titled “Washington's Crossing.” Among the inaccuracies Künstler corrected was the fact that Washington would not have been able to stand in a rowboat in daylight during a snowstorm, since it would have capsized. Nor would there be small icebergs in the water or the flag shown in the painting to have been used, since it was not adopted until the following year.
Historian and author David Hackett Fischer said that the painting by Künstler was “quite accurate...He got more right abut the crossing than any other image,” which included more than 200 previous paintings depicting that event. Although the new image is about 4 feet wide and 3 feet high, compared to Leutze's, which is about 21 feet wide and 12 feet high, Künstler says it is “the most important painting I've ever done." Civil War historian Harold Holzer, formerly with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which owns the original Leutze painting, called Künstler "the best-known and most respected historical artist in this country."
His later work covered a wider range of subject, including all the wars from the American Revolution through the Korean and Vietnam wars, with many paintings of World War II. He painted historical events such as the Oklahoma Land Rush  and he tried to humanize emotional settings by paintings of new immigrants at Ellis Island or Teddy Roosevelt celebrating the 4th of July. Some experts feel that it was Künstler's ability to humanize such moments which distinguished his works from most other historical artists.
He also painted subjects which illustrated American technological advances, such as dramatic illustrations of the space shuttle Columbia, for which NASA made him their official artist. His paintings recorded its manufacture, launching and landing.
In 1998 his paintings were exhibited at The North Carolina Museum of Art and at other U.S. museums, including the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh, and the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond.
Among the eight books featuring his work, is the 1986 coffee-table book The American Spirit: The Paintings of Mort Künstler, which contains nearly 200 images and commentary written by historian Henry Steele Commager. An updated edition of The American Spirit was published in 1994.
Awards and honors
- 1992. Painted a United States postage stamp depicting the Buffalo Soldiers.
- 1993. a one-hour television special with Stacy Keach entitled Images of the Civil War - The Paintings of Mort Künstler, was shown on the A&E network. (DVD released in 2014)
- 1999. Virginia officially declared a “Mort Künstler Day.”
- 2000. Virginia Governor James Gilmore officially opened an exhibition at Richmond's Museum of the Confederacy. The exhibit, titled, “The Confederate Spirit: The Paintings of Mort Künstler,” was the first one-man exhibition that the museum had ever held.
- 2001. Made official artist for the motion picture Gods and Generals.
- 2001. He received the Henry Timrod Southern Culture Award.
- 2002. Künstler became the first artist to be honored by a six-month, one-man exhibition at the new National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
- 2003. He received the Jefferson Davis Southern Heritage Award, both by the Military Order of the Stars and Bars.
- 2003. A residence hall at Timber Ridge School - a residency academy for special students in Winchester, Virginia, was named Mort Künstler Hall in his honor, because of his art assistance.
- 2004. Named an official artist for the H. L. Hunley, a submarine of the Confederate States of America, at which time he unveiled a new painting of the vessel during ceremonies in Charleston, South Carolina.
- 2004. Commissioned to furnish all the artwork for the Middletown, Ohio, Veterans Memorial, which was unveiled on July 4, 2004.
- 2011. His depiction of George Washington crossing the Delaware River was unveiled at the New York Historical Society on December 26, 2011, the 235th anniversary of the actual event, to great acclaim.
- Images of the Civil War: the Paintings of Mort Künstler (1992), ISBN 978-0-517-07356-8
- Gettysburg: The Paintings of Mort Künstler (Text by James M. McPherson) (1993), ISBN 1-878685-79-1
- The American Spirit: The Paintings of Mort Kunstler (1994) ISBN 1558533095
- Jackson & Lee: Legends in Gray (1995), ISBN 978-1-55853-333-2
- Mort Künstler's Old West. Cowboys. (1998), ISBN 978-1-55853-588-6
- Mort Künstler's Old West. Indians. (1998), ISBN 978-1-55853-589-3
- Gods and Generals: the Paintings of Mort Künstler (2002), ISBN 978-0-86713-084-3
- The Civil War Paintings of Mort Künstler (2006), ISBN 978-1-58182-556-5
- For Us the Living: The Civil War in Paintings and Eyewitness Accounts (2010), ISBN 978-1-4027-7034-0
Museums and institutions who have examples of his work
- Pritzker Military Museum & Library
- “Mort Künstler feted as painting's unveiled”, Newsday, Dec. 26, 2011
- "Mort Kunstler, premier historical artist, exhibits 50 works in Allentown", The Morning Call, Oct. 11, 2014
- "The Art of Mort Künstler", Saturday Evening Post, Dec. 19, 2016
- "Applying Brushstrokes to the Civil War", New York Times, Jan. 4, 1998
- “An interview with artist Mort Künstler – Part 1”, Mens Pulp Mags, August 8, 2011
- Doherty, M. Stephen. "Biography of the Artist", The American Spirit: The Paintings of Mort Kunstler, Rutledge Hill Press (1994) p. 235
- Drawing by Mort Kunstler when he was eight years old
- Heller, Steven. "Leon Friend: One Teacher, Many Apostles", Design Observer, July 21, 2007
- Friend, Leon; Hefter, Joseph. Graphic Design: A Library of Old and New Masters in the Graphic Arts, Amazon books
- Perrell, Franklin Hill. “Mort Künstler - The American Spirit”, Nassau Museum, August 31, 2006
- Examples of early men's magazine artwork by Kunstler
- George Gross artworks, Artnet
- George Gross (1909-2003), Pulp Artists
- Men's magazine art example by Mort Kunstler
- “Mort Künstler: The Art of Adventure Opens May 9 in the MSV”, Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, April 20, 2015
- Advertising art of Mort Kunstler
- “An interview with artist Mort Künstler – Part 2”, Mens Pulp Mags, August 24, 2011
- Poster for The Poseidon Adventure painted by Kunstler
- Poster art of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three
- Women's Lib painting for Mad magazine
- "Jaws" on the cover Mad magazine, Jan. 1976
- “An Afternoon with Mort Kunstler”, Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, May 2015
- “Artist Mort Kunstler's career examined in new retrospective show”, The Berkshire Eagle, Nov. 14, 2014
- ”Civil War artist to unveil new piece at area gallery's grand opening Saturday,” The Gettysburg Times, (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania), June 29, 2007 p. 6
- Abraham Lincoln painting by Mort Kunstler
- “Mort Kunstler biography”, King James Galleries
- Mort Kunstler website
- ”The Art of War”, Lansing State Journal, Oct. 1, 1992, p. 29
- Painting, "The Gunner and the Colonel" by Mort Kunstler
- ”Realist historical artist paints South with love”, Asheville Citizen-Times, (Asheville, North Carolina), Sept. 20, 1992 p. 35
- Painting titled "Divine Guidance", by Mort Kunstler
- “Mort Künstler: A Discussion with the Artist”, Pritzker Military Museum & Library, May 12, 2009
- "LaGrange vs. LaGrange" painting, 2015
- "Mort Kunstler’s Last Civil War Painting", Never Yet Melted, April 22, 2015
- ”Artist has new take on Washington's Crossing,” Arizona Daily Star, (Tucson, Arizona), Dec. 25, 2011, p. 5
- video:"Interview with LI artist Mort Künstler", News 12, Long Island, Feb. 11, 2016
- Attack on Pearl Harbor painting by Mort Kunstler (1986)
- D-Day painting by Mort Kunstler (1960)
- Painting called Oklahoma Land Rush, by Mort Kunstler (1985)
- Painting of the Great Hall at Ellis Island
- Painting entitled "Freedom" by Mort Kunstler
- Painting of Teddy Roosevelt celebrating the 4th of July
- Photo of Mort Kunstler at the launch of the Space Shuttle
- Painting of Space Shuttle Columbia
- Photo of "Buffalo Soldiers" stamp
- “American Civil War: Images of the Civil War: The Paintings of Mort Kunstler -and- Gettysburg: The Last Full Measure”, Amazon Movies