Harvey Dinnerstein, realist artist who sketched out a boycott, dies at 94

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Harvey Dinnerstein, a realist artist who documented the Montgomery bus boycott in drawings that captured the dignity and determination of civil rights activists, and who later channeled the rhythms of his native New York into large-scale paintings of street parties, subway scenes and everyday people at work, died June 21 in a Brooklyn hospital. He was 94 years old.

The cause was complications from a fall, said her niece, concert pianist Simone Dinnerstein.

Mr. Dinnerstein launched his artistic career in the early 1950s, producing realistic paintings inspired in part by the work of Rembrandt, Degas and the German artist Käthe Kollwitz. While most of his peers turned to abstraction, he remained resolutely committed to realism, seeking to apply the centuries-old tradition of figurative painting to his lively and socially conscious depictions of contemporary life.

Looking at one of his portraits – of a subway worker from New York, perhaps, or a dancer from Brazil – “one would think you were looking at a great Velázquez or Sorolla”, a painting by “l ‘one of the great masters,’ Alice said. Levi Duncan, senior director of the Gerald Peters Gallery in New York which represents Mr. Dinnerstein. Her work had “a reverence for the past,” she said in a phone interview, “but translated it into the 21st century.”

Mr. Dinnerstein worked with oils, pastels and etchings, but was probably best known for the drawings he made in early 1956, when he traveled to Alabama with fellow artist Burton Silverman, a high school classmate, to chronicle the bus boycott in Montgomery.

The duo had been moved by newspaper accounts of the boycott, a year-long campaign that ultimately succeeded in desegregating the bus system, and sought to make illustrations that would complement the work of journalists like Murray Kempton, whose the columns of the New York Post had first captured their attention.

With their fat New York accents and sketchbooks in hand, the 27-year-old artists were obviously outsiders. But they quickly won the trust of Montgomery activists, attending private church meetings and visiting organizers’ homes as they lured people carpooling to work or walking alone to the office or to the grocery store.

The artists also documented the trials of boycott leaders, including the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., and attracted organizers such as Rosa Parks, who started the boycott by refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man. Parks’ pencil and pastel drawing of Mr. Dinnerstein showed her holding a Bible in a moment of contemplation with her head bowed and a cross on her chest.

“You look at this picture of Rosa Parks and you feel her calm,” said Heather Campbell Coyle, curator of American art at the Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington. In a phone interview, she praised Mr Dinnerstein’s “absolute mastery” of figurative drawing, adding that the way he captured Parks “gives you such a sense of his quiet dignity and strength”.

Mr. Dinnerstein and Silverman made about 90 paintings, half of which were acquired by the Delaware Art Museum. Some of the illustrations have appeared in newspapers and magazines, and many have been exhibited in a gallery in New York. Covering the boycott reaffirmed Mr. Dinnerstein’s commitment to realism, although he also sought to distance himself from journalism.

“At some point, I began to realize that just recording incidents was not enough,” he told The Epoch Times in 2017. “It had to go beyond the narrative, beyond of the moment, for something deeper, more transcendent… for some. another level of perception.

Yet he continued to draw inspiration from ordinary events, strolling through Central Park or taking the subway from his home in Brooklyn to take art classes in Manhattan, where he taught for 40 years at the Art Students League of New York.

Many of his works seemed to celebrate diversity and resilience, showing a mix of young and old, white and black, partying outside a Brooklyn brownstone or together on a train. One of his most evocative paintings, “Underground Together” (1996), spans almost nine feet and shows a dozen figures aboard a subway car, seen from the platform before the door opens. closes itself.

The crowd includes a businessman, a construction worker, a mother and child, a crouching beggar with a cup, and a young man passing her change. At the door stands Mr. Dinnerstein himself, easily recognizable with his glasses and white beard, recording the scene in his sketchbook.

The eldest of two brothers, Harvey Dinnerstein was born in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn on April 3, 1928. His mother was a housewife from Belarus and his father was a pharmacist and labor activist who joined the Communist Party USA and marched for civilian life. rights. Both supported his desire to become an artist.

“They had no particular interest in art, or any conception of what it meant to be an artist,” Mr. Dinnerstein told Linea, a publication of the Art Students League, in 2021. “But they had convictions who placed human values ​​above monetary concerns, and encouraged me to continue my studies in a field which was totally foreign to them and which must have seemed to them, at the time, completely impracticable.

Mr. Dinnerstein was admitted to the High School of Music & Art in Manhattan and took weekend classes with Russian-born figurative painter Moses Soyer, a prominent figurative artist. He then studied at the Art Students League and graduated in 1950 from the Tyler School of Art at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Drafted into the army during the Korean War, he made greeting cards for GIs while stationed at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. (According to family lore, it was his ability to draw that saved him from being sent to Korea.) In 1955 he had made his solo debut in New York with an exhibition at the Davis Galleries in Manhattan. A New York Times reviewer compared his “skillful and subtle figure drawings” to the works of French artist Édouard Vuillard.

Over the next decade Mr. Dinnerstein began to support his artistic career by illustrating books (including a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories for Macmillan) and taking commissions. Esquire sent him to Washington in 1968 to sketch the Poor People’s Campaign, an anti-poverty effort launched by King.

Mr. Dinnerstein then illustrated the Grammy-winning album cover for “The Siegel-Schwall Band,” a 1971 record by the blues-rock band of the same name. He taught at the School of Visual Arts and the National Academy of Design, both in New York, before joining the Art Students League in 1980.

Survivors include his 71-year-old wife, art historian Lois Behrke Dinnerstein of Brooklyn; two children, Michael of Denver and Rachel of Endicott, NY; and his brother, Simon, a fellow artist.

In an essay for Linea last year, Mr Dinnerstein wrote that he and his wife had spent the last 17 months of the coronavirus pandemic in self-quarantine at home, with virtually no contact with the word outside. “After a period of uncertainty, I found great comfort when I picked up a drawing tool or a paintbrush and somehow the creative spark returned,” a- he writes. “A life-affirming, beyond the shadows of the deadly virus.”

Mr. Dinnerstein was still working until the day before he died, drawing “on the back of the envelopes, anything that came to hand,” his niece said.

Last year he completed a pastel titled “From Darkness to Light” showing an old woman with a mask over her face, leading a child through a dark tunnel and into a brightly lit garden.

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