Painting the finer brush strokes of American history

Last modified: Tuesday, March 31, 2015
*Archive Article*

“I loved painting, I didn’t care what it was. It kept me off the streets.”

— Mort Kunstler, 2014

Having a hand that, at times, bleeds from an afternoon of book signings and autographing prints is a passing annoyance for the artist Mort Kunstler. The painter, whose career has spanned 60 years, simply tapes his fingers and readies his pen for the next admirer.

“I’ve been the luckiest guy in the world to do what I love to do and be paid nicely for it,” the 87-year-old said recently at Stockbridge’s Norman Rockwell Museum.

Through March 8, four galleries are devoted to his work. The paintings range from sexy and suspenseful men’s adventure magazine illustrations from the Cold War era to intricately detailed and historically accurate paintings of the American Civil War. For almost 30 years, Kunstler’s images from that period have been lauded by historians and collectors. He is today’s quintessential chronicler of the American past.

During a recent interview at the museum, the southpaw displayed the dramatic difference between his hands. Two of his fingers, which hold paintbrushes for hours, are twice the size of their right hand mates. A prominent callous juts from his index finger.

“That’s the brush; that’s 5,000 paintings worth,” Kunstler said, smiling.

Familiar images

A Brooklyn native, at age 2, when many of us are still perfecting walking and facial expressions, he began to draw.

“I had parents that encouraged me and saw my talent at an early age,” Kunstler told a group of educators at the museum later that afternoon. From the time he was five his father took him for frequent visits to the Brooklyn Art Museum, where he later attended student classes.

Academically indifferent, when he attempted admission to the Pratt Institute he was rejected, only to be accepted later for his abilities as a basketball player.

Upon graduation, he worked briefly for an illustration house and within three months became a freelancer for book covers and magazines.

Battalions of illustrators at the time were attracted to depicting scenes in “pulp” magazines, so named due their cheap paper stock. Following a paper shortage during World War II, however, this literary subculture was in a death spiral. The coup de grace was television, an emerging medium that was catnip for advertisers.

Of the 70 colleagues who were in Kunstler’s illustration classes, only two went on to careers in the profession.

Supplanting the pulps were men’s magazines and Kunstler’s early career was carved out in depicting scenes for such fare as “Stag,” “For Men Only” and “Male.” Into the red zone with testosterone, illustrations could almost be confused for suspenseful lingerie ads, with lightly clad women defended by macho men more muscular than a Macy’s parade balloon. There was little not to like.

Kunstler explained that the work was demanding, inasfar as he had to solve compositional problems quickly, while providing a logical space for titles and copy.

“It was a great, great practice,” he said. “I learned to paint scenes that couldn’t be photographed.”

He also contributed illustrations to “Newsweek,” “The Saturday Evening Post,” and “Sports Afield” among other mainstream publications.

Kunstler’s career trajectory became stratospheric and, between his commemorative stamps for the U.S. Postal System, dramatic battle scenes for Aurora’s line of plastic model assembly kits and 1970s movie posters, you’ve seen his work throughout your lifetime.

Theater posters for the 1970s films “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” and “The Poseidon Adventure,” were among his creations. The 1972 big budget, upside-down-ship odyssey not only provided audiences with a sinking feeling, it also allowed artwork for suddenly upraised dresses and sculpted thighs to be part of the action. Kunstler was given strict instructions from the studio. The sizes of the various actor’s heads had to jibe with their contractual stipulations. The actor Gene Hackman’s head is noticeably larger than other characters, who diminish proportionately. To assure studio legalities, Kunstler used calipers for measurement.

A sea change

In 1966, Kunstler was commissioned by “National Geographic” magazine to depict the early history of St. Augustine. This required studious research and correspondence with leading historians for authenticity. The work brought an epiphany.

“His whole style changed after he started working for National Geographic,” Martin Mahoney, the director of collections for the museum said that afternoon. He was responsible for curating some 100 works for the exhibit. “He knows values, understands perspective. He’s very well-trained, has a great eye and great imagination and you put all those together and he’s deadly.”

In 1982, CBS commissioned Kunstler to produce advertising art for the miniseries “The Blue and The Gray.” The images, however, were more ersatz than historic. “(CBS) lacked the time and the devotion,” he said. “At the time, they couldn’t care less about accuracy.” The project, however, spurred his interest in depicting the monumental images of our past.

Kunstler began a series of detailed, historically precise paintings he said “which for want of a better term, I’d call ‘epic events in American history.’”

His depiction of “The High Water Mark,” at the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg caught the interest of a printmaker who bought reproduction rights to create 750 copies. They quickly sold out and the two knew they’d found a wellspring of interest among Civil War buffs and collectors. The paintings, accurate to the bootstraps, weather conditions and time of day, may require two months at the easel and the collective images are available in several books. His original oils of the conflict and the era sell for $150,000 and beyond. He attributes the enthu siasm for originals and prints as deriving from a sense of the period’s romance and drama, however misplaced, among collectors.

“I don’t see how you can be a ‘fan’ of the Civil War,” Kunstler said. “A friend said that ‘the less you know about the Civil War, the more you like it.’”

Cowboys, MAD magazine and vodka

There is such a concentration to the study of light and composition in Kunstler’s oils that you feel that you could easily step into a painting. A western image of cowboys running a feral herd captures the formidable strength of unleashed horsepower with a dense cloud of dust traveling upwards to eye level.

“It’s really hard to convey movement, surprisingly, and Mort is certainly a master,” curator Mahoney said. “He knows anatomy. He’s classically trained and he’s gone through a process that’s pretty rare today.”

A fractional moment in that process was a brief experience with MAD magazine. They inquired whether he’d paint a back cover. He flatly refused.

“I said ‘I’m not working for a comic book!’ It was beneath my dignity,” he recalled.

When his teenage daughter heard of the rejection, she was almost in tears. His other national work she took little note of, however, MAD magazine was as close as you get to earthbound heaven among her set.

He took another assignment, lampooning the 1975 “Jaws” movie poster of a great white shark in profile posed beneath a swimmer. His front cover shows an idiotically smiling Alfred E. Newman, in a striped Victorian-era swimsuit paddling freely above a shark who voices a disgusting “Yecch!”

The satirical monthly had a policy of keeping all artwork, an arrangement with which Kunstler couldn’t abide. When publisher William Gaines died, however, his widow auctioned off the inventory of images and sent each artist what the painter described as “generous” checks. The lore is that the Jaws cover is now owned by the film’s director Steven Spielberg.

Kunstler had stopped working in advertising illustration in 1981, however, recently he was approached by Maximus Vodka. An advertising firm representing the Polish distiller was seeking a half-dozen images from his long ago men’s adventure illustrations.

A British advertising agent phoned in an offer.

“You’re kidding,” Kunstler said, startled at the attractive fee.

The agent raised the offer.

“You’re kidding,” the artist again responded, surprised at the sum.

“He raised the price every time ... he thought I was bargaining with him,” Kunstler said.

The final fee agreed upon, the artist thought, was $100,000. He later discovered that the agent was discussing British pounds, making that roughly $156,450 before taxes.

“That was a very good year for me in 2013,” the artist joked.

Coincidentally, Kunstler in German means “artist,” a name bestowed upon his talented great grandfather by a Russian Tsar.

For all of his awards and plaudits, he’s remained a gracious and unassuming man and had this advice.

“If you’re going to be an artist, you have to keep working at it,” Kunstler said. “If it’s burning in your belly, don’t worry or second guess yourself ... If you have that deep passion, hey, give it a shot. You’re looking forward to a lot of hard work and you have to love it. There are no secret formulas.”


“Mort Kunstler: The Art of Adventure” continues at the Norman Rockwell Museum through March 8. Open weekdays: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; weekends 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission: Adults $17.50; College stdts. w/ID $10; Children to teens ages 6 to 18/ $5. Directions: The museum is less than three miles from downtown Stockbridge. Signs direct motorists to Route 102 west and then Route 183 south. For information on lectures and events: nrm.org

Don Stewart is a freelance writer who lives in Plainfield. He has written for The Recorder since 1994.