Harvey Dinnerstein, Proud Realist Painter, Dies at 94
The Montgomery bus boycott was in its infancy when Harvey Dinnerstein and his friend Burt Silverman – two socially conscious realist painters motivated by the lack of photographic evidence of the protests – took the train from Penn Station to Manhattan, Alabama in 1956 to sketch this seminal chapter of the nascent civil rights movement.
They used pencils and charcoal to document the trial of boycott leaders, including the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., as well as religious gatherings and services and the lives of people surviving without city buses.
“The black community welcomed us into their homes, where we quickly realized that much more than the lawsuit needed to be recorded,” they wrote in the catalog for an exhibition of their drawings at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in 2006. “We intuitively decided to draw these ordinary citizens, and they became the main subjects of our subsequent efforts.
Mr. Dinnerstein sketched a contemplative Rosa Parks, whose refusal to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery had inspired the boycott; in her portrait, she holds a Bible, her eyes apparently closed. It depicts a group of about a dozen men and women, one of them on crutches, walking together, their destination unknown; people walk; men in the street talking; two men playing chess in a barbershop.
These drawings are among the best-known works of Mr. Dinnerstein’s long career, in which he remained committed to figurative realism and resisted the abstract expressionism that was beginning to flourish in the early 1950s.
“They just have an extraordinary humanity,” Heather Campbell Coyle, curator of American art at the Delaware Art Museum, who exhibited the two men’s drawings in 2018, said in a phone interview. “Walkers shoot me – only to see a middle-aged black man trudging through the Montgomery heat because he doesn’t take the bus.”
In June 1968, Mr. Dinnerstein traveled to Washington for Esquire magazine to draw the Campaign of the Poor – an attempt organized by Dr. King, who had been murdered in April, to seek economic justice for those living in poverty.
“The last time I was this close to ‘The Movement’ was 12 years ago in Montgomery, Alabama,” he wrote. “One evening, I drew the 10-year-old daughter of one of the organizers. This child is 22 today and I doubt her dreams have somehow come true.
Mr. Dinnerstein, who in addition to his work on paintings and drawings was also a longtime art teacher, died June 21 in Brooklyn. He was 94 years old.
His death, in a hospital, was confirmed by his niece, concert pianist Simone Dinnerstein.
Harvey Dinnerstein was born on April 3, 1928 in Brooklyn. His father, Louis, was a pharmacist; his mother, Sarah (Kobilansky) Dinnerstein, was a homemaker. At age 14, he entered the High School of Music & Art, now High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts Fiorello H. LaGuardia (where he met Mr. Silverman), and he quickly knew he would be an artist. .
“It never occurred to me to be anything other than an entertainer. Well, maybe a shortstop for the Brooklyn Dodgers, circa 1939,” he said in a interview last year with Linea, an online journal of the Art Students League.
He attended the Art Students League, where he studied with the Russian-born painter Moses Soyer, before enrolling in the Tyler School of Art and Architecture at Temple University in Philadelphia, from which he graduated in 1950. He is drafted into the army during the Korean War and served in the United States at Fort Monmouth, NJ, where he designed greeting cards for soldiers.
Mr. Dinnerstein came of age in the early 1950s. Indifferent to abstract expressionism, he followed the artistic tradition of realists like Francisco Goya and Honoré Daumier.
“It was the time when people were saying think about de Kooning,” Alice Duncan, senior director of the Gerald Peters Gallery in Manhattan, which represents Mr. Dinnerstein, said in a phone interview. “And he certainly wasn’t thinking of de Kooning.”
Instead, Mr. Dinnerstein largely depicted life around him: on the subway, in parks, outside brownstones like his in Brooklyn. In a rare foray into celebrity portraiture, Mr. Dinnerstein was commissioned by Sports Illustrated in 1974 to paint Yankee Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio in what has become a widely published image of him in his familiar wide stance, just after hitting the ball. He also won a Grammy Award in 1973 for best album cover for “The Siegel-Schwall Band”, by the Chicago blues band of the same name.
Mr. Dinnerstein was sometimes his own subject – depicting himself, for example, at work on the subway, sketching his fellow travelers.
In one of his subway paintings, figures surrounding him include a man holding a small child, a young woman with a bicycle, a construction worker and a guide dog, while a woman on the platform hammers a conga drum and wandering newspapers float around them. . They pay no attention to Mr. Dinnerstein.
In another, a girl sleeps, lying on her mother’s legs.
“The atmosphere, which is generated by the austere overhead lighting, and the sterile environment made of that all-too-familiar shaped plastic and stainless steel are perfectly captured,” wrote artist and art critic D. Dominick Lombardi in the New York Times. in 1999.
Mr. Dinnerstein said he learned things about people on the subway that he hadn’t been taught in art school.
“The immediacy of a direct response to the human subject in a moving train requires developing powers of perception and memory,” he said in the catalog for the 2018 exhibition “Harvey Dinnerstein’s New York,” at the Gerald Peters Gallery. “The Metro also revealed a vision of the great diversity of life in the city that has shaped my artistic vision over the years.”
His wife, Lois (Behrke) Dinnerstein, an art historian, also appears in his work: on a ferry at sunrise; one winter day, her scarf flying in the wind. He also depicted her alone, during the Covid-19 pandemic – in a portrait, her hair sticking out from under her hat, and in a hospital, with an oxygen cannula in her nose, to treat pneumonia.
“The world I knew has been drastically altered by the invisible virus, and I find it very difficult to navigate this uncharted territory,” he wrote on Linea last year. “But after a period of uncertainty, I found great solace when I picked up a drawing tool or a brush and the creative spark returned. A life-affirming, beyond the shadows of the virus deadly.
Mr. Dinnerstein was a revered teacher at the Art Students League for 40 years, only stopping when the pandemic hit in 2020. He also taught at the School of Visual Arts from 1965 to 1980 and at the National Academy of Design from 1975 to 1992.
“If you were serious, he gave you a lot of rope,” said Jerry Weiss, a painter who studied with Mr. Dinnerstein at the Art Students League. “He came to criticize or compliment me, but I saw him bully other students who were flippant or not serious.”
Mr. Dinnerstein is survived by his wife; one daughter, Rachel Dinnerstein; one son, Michael; and a brother, Simon, a figurative artist.
One of Mr. Dinnerstein’s most evocative works is a tribute, painted in 2003, to those who lost their lives in the September 11 attacks. Based in part on a candlelight procession outside his local fire station, which lost 12 men, it shows a firefighter, a nun, a man with a child on his shoulders and several other people lined up amid the collapsed buildings, holding candles that illuminate their downcast faces.
“With an intensity reminiscent of the dramatically illuminated seventeenth-century compositions of Georges de La Tour and followers of Caravaggio,” wrote Gabriel R. Weisberg in Fine Art Connoisseur magazine in 2008, “Dinnerstein creates a moving allegory of hope that can emerge from a disaster. ”