Mort Kunstler has a way of making people interested in American history – specifically, the Civil War. His work does not depict battle scenes but rather human interest stories with an emphasis on the Battle of Gettysburg from 1861 to 1865. For three decades, his brush has served as the narrator of his accurate wartime storytelling. The public will have an opportunity to meet our country’s most-collected Civil War artist and the debut of his newest work, "Pickett's Charge: Gettysburg, July 3, 1863," on Friday evening at the Reading Public Museum.
In honor of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg and the Gettysburg Address, the museum is hosting the traveling exhibit, "Remembering the Battle of Gettysburg: The Civil War Art of Mort Kunstler," through July 28, featuring more than 30 oils on canvas and sketches by the renowned historical artist. Friday’s opening will feature a special reception, by reservation, with Kunstler from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., including a Meet and Greet, a lecture on "Art of the Civil War," and a book signing.
The exhibit began in February 2012, and has been displayed since at museums in Virginia and South Carolina. Following Reading, it will travel to North Carolina and then to Maryland in 2014. According to the artist, the works are basically from his personal collection.
The Brooklyn-born Kunstler is recognized as "the premier historical artist in America" who, even before his Civil War collection, was creating portraits ranging from prehistoric American life to the odyssey of the space shuttle Columbia. Not revealing his age but calling himself "an octogenarian," Kunstler’s professional art career stretches back to the 1950s, when he worked as an illustrator for adventure magazines, paperback books, and movie posters. He followed in the tradition and style of such illustrators as Norman Rockwell and J.C. Leyendecker.
In a phone interview from his New York home in Oyster Bay, Long Island, Kunstler said it was Easton documentary maker Lou Reda who was responsible for his Civil War paintings. He explained that in 1982, he was commissioned by CBS-TV to do a painting for the mini-series, "The Blue and the Gray." The series was shown in three installments and starred Stacy Keach, Colleen Dewhurst and Gregory Peck as Abraham Lincoln. That’s when Kunstler met Reda, who was an executive producer for the series. Kunstler’s painting, "The High Water Mark," was unveiled at the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum on July 2, 1988, in celebration of the 125th anniversary of the battle.
Several World War II combat paintings by Kunstler also appeared in the 26-part TV series, "The War Chronicles," produced by Lou Reda Productions and aired on WABC-TV in September 1984. Kunstler recalled how he was invited to Allentown earlier that year for a preview of the series and as a guest speaker for a Lehigh Valley World War II Veterans Reunion which was attended by those who fought in the crucial battles of Anzio, the Bulge and Peleliu. The reunion was held just days before the 40th anniversary of D-Day.
Kunstler said he was excited to be once again visiting Pennsylvania and looking forward to his Reading engagement.
"I love doing my work," he said. "People retire to paint pictures. I've been doing them all my life. It’s been hard work and passion."
The timing could not have been better for Kunstler's art in American society, when personal computers were unheard of and the impact of TV and color photography was yet to hit.
"I had to do stuff that the camera couldn’t do," he said, adding that he always sought accuracy in his work.
He stressed that his paintings "do not happen by happenstance," but that they begin as conceptual drawings and sketches, with charcoal thumbnails. He examines the angles and perspective, linear design, light and dark, and color. A painting can take a day, or it can take two months, he said, with canvas sizes varying from 12-inches-by-12 inches to three-and four-feet wide.
"It's reinventing and reimaging events that long transpired in history and that were never photographed," he explained. Linear composition tells the story, he said, citing the work of Norman Rockwell and for point of perspective, that of Leonardo da Vinci.
Kunstler said he was inspired at age 7 to draw his first military picture after seeing films during the 1930s with World War II themes, including "All Quiet on the Western Front" and "Dawn Patrol." He studied art at Brooklyn College, UCLA, and Pratt Institute, and worked as a freelance artist for major book and magazine publishers in New York in the 1950s. He also worked with "National Geographic" magazine, did art for Aurora model kit boxes, back covers for "Mad Magazine," and posters for such films as "The Poseidon Adventure" and "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three."
In the 1970s, his art began to attract serious art collectors. His interest in Western subject matter took a turn after a major museum retrospective exhibition and a one-man show, and he was recognized as an important painter of historic subjects. His art work has been the subject of many books and the one-hour television special, "Images of the Civil War – The Paintings of Mort Kunstler," on the A&E network. In 2001, he was named official artist and served as a consultant for the film, "Gods and Generals."
Most recently, Kunstler was commissioned by a New York lawyer/history buff to paint a more accurate depiction of Washington crossing the Delaware than the recognized painting done by German-born artist Emanuel Leutze in 1851, titled "Washington’s Crossing the Delaware." Kunstler’s painting, "Washington's Crossing: McKonkey’s Ferry, Dec. 26, 1776," was unveiled at the New York-Historical Society on Dec. 26, 2011, the 235th anniversary of the actual event. The painting was displayed at the Lehigh Valley Heritage Museum in Allentown last October, when it opened an exhibit on the Revolutionary War.
A major retrospective exhibit of Kunstler's paintings will be held at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., from November 2014 to March 2015. Kunstler also will be honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Booth Western Art Museum in Cartersville, Ga., on Feb. 15, 2014.
The artist added that in 2015, he will be working exclusively on the American Revolution.
"I'm being educated with lots of fun," he said. "Did Paul Revere really ride? I will check all the details,”"he said, with a laugh.
Student art takes center stage in Reading, with the Berks County Intermediate Unit sponsoring its annual art show at the GoggleWorks through May 2. The exhibit features work by area high school students in a variety of categories.
In Lehigh County, the 15th Congressional District High School Art Competition and National Exhibition, "An Artistic Discovery 2013," is being featured at the Baum School of Art in Allentown through May 10. An Awards Reception will be held Wednesday from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m., with awards presented at 11 a.m. Winning entries will be part of a group exhibition at the Cannon Tunnel Gallery of the United States Capitol for one year.