Friday, July 4, 2008

Kunstler Unveils New Masterpiece

July 4, 2008
by David J. Criblez, Oyster Bay Guardian

Artist Mort Kunstler of Cove Neck is world-renowned for his Civil War paintings; however, his latest creation brings his historical focus closer to home. Labeled "Teddy's Fourth of July," the painting depicts President Theodore Roosevelt being driven in a car in the heart of Oyster Bay hamlet, on South Street at the intersection between East Main Street and Audrey Avenue, as the local residents cheer and wave on Independence Day. "I think it's one of the best paintings I've ever done. I'm so proud of it," said Kunstler. "It was very exciting for me to paint. I can't wait for everyone to see it."

Surprisingly, this is Kunstler's first painting set on Long Island and third involving the 26th President. The origin of this painting goes back to his friendship with Oyster Bay Cove neighbor Roger Bahnik, Chairman of Mill-Max Manufacturing Corp. and Co-President of the Boys & Girls Club of Oyster Bay-East Norwich. Kunstler and Bahnik, who have been friends for close to 20 years, would see each other socially and Kunstler and his wife Deborah are big supporters of the Boys & Girls Club. "I used to say to him: 'You are such a great painter. How come you don't do a Long Island painting? What about an Oyster Bay painting?' He has been a resident here longer than I have," said Bahnik. "Finally I decided to commission him to do it. All of a sudden it went from being a friendly request to me being a customer."

Kunstler stated, "Roger said, 'I love Oyster Bay. Theodore Roosevelt is Oyster Bay's president and you are Oyster Bay's artist. I want you to paint a picture of Theodore Roosevelt in Oyster Bay. I don't care what it costs, just paint the picture.'"

Bahnik owns three original Kunstler paintings, including the new one, and over 15 prints. "I like to own work of the artists that I know and who are my friends," he said. "Mort has donated prints to the Boys & Girls Club for many years. I have more than 15 of his prints and they are all over - at my kids' houses, my office, they are all over the place. I'm fascinated by the Civil War. This is not the history that I grew up on because I was raised overseas but I became increasingly interested in U.S. history. A year ago Mort went with us to Gettysburg and showed us around. Everything became more real."

The painting, commissioned by Bahnik for $100,000, will be the center of a unique fundraiser for the Boys & Girls Club. In September limited edition prints will be sold to raise money for the Club and a special signing will be held at the Club where Kunstler can meet and greet his fans face-to-face. Prints will sell for $225 and special pre-orders, which will begin this summer, will go for $200. "There will be an Oyster Bay edition with a seal on it that will probably incorporate the TR statue," said Kunstler. "Roosevelt is a popular figure therefore I think it will sell well. When I go out of town to Gettysburg or Richmond, people line up for hours and I just keep signing. To think that will happen in Oyster Bay is kind of fun."

The print will be released in time for the celebration of Roosevelt's 150th birthday. Additionally, there will be a giclée print-on-canvas limited run of 150. "The timing was pure coincidence," Kunstler said. "I expect we will be able to raise a lot of money for the Boys & Girls Club."

Before creating the painting, Kunstler did a large amount of research to fill in the details making the scene authentic. He read books on TR, borrowed pictures from the Theodore Roosevelt Association, he had TR re-enactor Jim Foote of Sea Cliff pose for him, and worked closely with Town of Oyster Bay Historian John Hammond from the beginning to the end of the project.

"Mort had the idea of doing a painting of TR around the 4th of July in the village," said Hammond. "He's very into old buildings that are still in existence, therefore he was focused on the Moore building."

Roosevelt was known for delivering speeches on July 4th during his presidency. In 1906, TR spoke on Independence Day in Oyster Bay on Ivy Street in Robert Jordan's Locust Grove. Hammond brought Kunstler pictures to use as guidelines. One picture of the Moore building decorated with July 4th bunting served as a key focus for Kunstler's painting. He even incorporated actual stores that existed in the hamlet at the time such as Emil Hill Bakery and Tappen Bicycle Shop, which were attached to the back of the Moore building.

In the painting, just ahead of TR's car is a young boy running barefoot, which was something that Kunstler carefully planned with Hammond. "About May 15th was the unofficial time when all the boys in the village would go barefoot for the rest of the summer. It's characteristic of the time," said Hammond. "Mort even got into the details from a weather standpoint such as where the sun would be relative to the lighting of other buildings." As it turned out, the painting is set in the afternoon with the sun on the left side.

"Once I got the angle of the building ad the lighting set then I wanted to make Roosevelt as large as possible so he would pop out with his white suit to get your eye going to him," said Kunstler. "I had to use a two-seater right hand-drive car, which I found at an antique auto show at Sagamore Hill."

Hammond said the use of the car cannot be confirmed through historical research but it's certainly possible. "I've researched all of TR's comings and goings over the course of his presidency. There's no actual documentation of him being in a car in Oyster Bay but the absence of it doesn't mean he wasn't in a car. In some cases, the newspapers would say he was 'driven' but they used the same terminology for a carriage," said Hammond. "The overall scene is incredibly representative of the way the people would react to Roosevelt being in the village."

As the painting took shape, both Bahnik and Hammond watched Kunstler's various stages of the project. "I was quite a bit surprised because I didn't know what to expect. It's a very exciting painting. I have great admiration for Mort as an artist and I just knew it would be great," said Bahnik. Hammond added, "Mort's art is just fantastic. To be able to see him go from just the crude idea to the sketches to the layout and all the processes involved was truly amazing."

If you look closely at the painting you might see some familiar faces from Oyster Bay. One of the items Kunstler donated to the Boys & Girls Club for auction was to have your likeness put in one of his paintings. Irwin and Judith Tantleff won that auction and were put into the painting along with Roger and Lori Bahnik and their children Michele Mercier Bahnik and Claude Bahnik with their spouses Marie Bahnik and Kevin Mercier. "Everyone is scattered throughout the picture. Roger is TR's driver. Lori is in the foreground standing next to a carriage on the right. Claude is inside the carriage waving his hat with his wife Marie who's holding a baby. Michele is standing in front of an ice wagon on the left side of the picture with Judith Tantleff. Irwin is a little further up with his hat in his hand. Kevin is the mounted Rough Rider Secret Serviceman," said Kunstler.

When asked if the success of this painting will spur him to do more Long Island themed pieces, Kunstler said, "I think I will. Maybe I could do one of Sagamore Hill or something involving the old whaling days at Cold Spring Harbor. This project was a lot of fun for me."

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All illustrations by Mort Künstler. Text by Michael Aubrecht, Dee Brown, Henry Steele Commager, Rod Gragg, Mort Knstler, James McPherson, and James I. Robertson, Jr. - Copyright 2001-2011. All Rights Reserved. No part of the contents of this web site may be reproduced or utilized in any form by any means without written consent of the artist.