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A Masterclass in Realism Art: Harvey Dinnerstein

The renowned realist continues to express his vision of contemporary life after nine decades.

Life Cycle,  (2008; oil on canvas, 41 3⁄4 x 71 3⁄4).

In this personal essay from Artists Magazine in 2016, celebrated New York artist Harvey Dinnerstein discusses his recent works including his favorite recurring themes, his intimate approach to portraiture, and his contemporary take on classical elements of form, structure and realism art.

The Ninth Decade

Time moves inexorably. Another turn of the wheel, and I find myself in this ninth decade of my life, contemplating past and present.

My studio is more crowded than ever these days. And sometimes it is difficult setting up a work space in the midst of all the oil paintings, pastels, compositional studies, drawings and props related to projects I am currently working on. There are also storage racks at the back of the studio, into the hallway and throughout the apartment, overflowing with work I have done in the past.

Passage in Winter, (2009; oil on canvas, 45 x 60).

Rites of Passage

All of these images, past and present, are interwoven. And the recent work is concerned with many of the themes I have explored in the past. In the painting Passage in Winter (above), I have returned to the subject of the seasons, based on various tunnels and landscape views in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. I have been working from this subject for the past 42 years. And I still find endless possibilities in this oasis of nature in the midst of the city. Beyond responding to qualities of color, light and space, I conceive of the tunnel as a passage in time, related to the human journey. The painting Life Cycle (top of article) is inscribed with a quotation from Ovid, “Omnia mutantur, nihil interit.” (“All things are changed, nothing perishes.”)

Realism art portrait
Pigeon (2012; oil on canvas, 78 x 35 3⁄4).
Realism art portrait
Old Man Planting a Tree, (2011; oil on canvas, 96 x 50).

Pigeon (above) and Old Man Planting a Tree (above) are part of a series of life-size portraits I’ve been working on since the 1970s. An image of this scale has a presence that I hope will be conveyed to the viewer. But I also like to vary the scale of work. Sometimes a small, intimate image seems appropriate. In Lois(below), a portrait of my wife, and L. & H.: The Ninth Decade (below), I deliberately chose a scale that could be viewed up close, to reflect my intimate response to the subject.

Realism art in pastel
L. & H.: The Ninth Decade, (2013; graphite and pastel on paper, 5 3⁄4 x 7 3⁄8).
Realism art portrait
Lois, (2015; oil on board, 14 1⁄2 x 8).

Notes Underground

Underground Drum Beat, Pui Yi and Oscar and Olivia (all below) relate to all the subway images I have done over the years. As a child, growing up in Brownsville, Brooklyn, I depended on the subway to enable me to travel outside my provincial neighborhood—to explore the great metropolis. I learned a great deal about drawing by sketching in the subway. The vast diversity of humanity in the city, more so today than ever, seems to me especially focused underground.

Realism art subway series.
Underground Drum Beat, (2014; oil on canvas, 46 x 60).
Realism art portrait series.
Oscar and Olivia, (2013; pastel on board, 22 x 19 1⁄4).

My emphasis on traditions of the past is not concerned with nostalgia or escape from the present. It is the powerful visual language of our cultural legacy—from the art of antiquity to the Renaissance and on to the 19th century—that interests me, along with a conviction that this visual language is viable today only when it is rooted to the earth, invigorated by contemporary concerns.

Realism art subway portrait series.
Put Yi, (2013; pastel on board, 17 3⁄4 x 16).

The Power of Seeing in Realistic Art

My works combine aspects of naturalism, or incidental observation, with classical elements of form and structure. Though these qualities may seem contradictory, I believe they complement and reinforce each other. The purely naturalistic view, concerned with surface appearance and transitory effects of nature, is as unfulfilling to me as the arid qualities of classical form that lack the vigor of life.

My comments about recent and past work evoke the question, What about tomorrow? A primed canvas was delivered today. And even though I may need an assistant to help me lift the large canvas to the easel, I look forward with exhilaration to starting the project. Perhaps a new canvas is the best response in old age to the uncertainties of the future.

To see more of Dinnerstein’s impressive body of work and the artistic eye he has focused on the political and social forces of his time, check out the September 2020 issue of Artists Magazine.

About the Artist

Harvey Dinnerstein has taught at the School of Visual Arts, 1965–1980; the National Academy of Design, 1975–1992, and since 1980, at the Art Students League of New York. His numerous awards include Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Grants (1948, 1961); National Academy of Design Ranger Purchase Award (1976); Allied Artists of America Gold Medal (1977); Audubon Artists President’s Award (1978); American Academy of Arts and Letters Purchase Award (1974, 1978, 1987); Classical America, Arthur Ross Award (1983); an honorary doctorate, Lyme Academy of Fine Arts (1998), and Portrait Society of America Gold Medal Award (2007). In 1974, he was elected a member of the National Academy of Design.

His work is in many private, corporate and museum collections, including the Lehman Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; The New Britain Museum of American Art; the Martin Luther King Jr. Labor Center; the University of Texas, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Watson-Guptill published Harvey Dinnerstein: Artist at Work in 1978. Chronicle Books published Underground Together: The Art and Life of Harvey Dinnerstein in 2008.

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