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Artist’s large-scale work opens at Butler

“Life Examined: The Impressionistic Realism of Sam Rosenthal” was supposed to open in March at the Butler Institute of American Art, until the museum — and most of the country — was shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Chicago artist’s large-scale paintings will be on the gallery walls when the Butler reopens Tuesday and now will be on display through Aug. 16. But the coronavirus was only the latest hiccup in Rosenthal’s work making its Youngstown debut.

He first came to the museum in 2003 for an exhibition by Richard Schmid, a Chicago artist who was a mentor to many in that city, and he would stop there in his travels between Chicago and either Connecticut or New Hampshire, where he also painted.

“The Butler is a small- to medium-sized museum, but its batting average from really great work to not really good work is really high,” Rosenthal said. “The Vonnoh (“In Flanders Field“) is his best, and the Winslow Homer (“Snap the Whip“), if not his best is one of the top five. There’s just a lot of good work.”

The Butler Midyear juried show was on display during one of his visits, and one of the pieces on display was a cityscape of a location Rosenthal had painted. He thought his painting was superior, and he sent the Butler a photo of his work. He was encouraged to submit something for next year’s Midyear.

He did. It wasn’t accepted by the juror, but he got a note from from Butler Executive Director Louis Zona, who told him he liked his paintings and would like to work with him in the future. Over the next 18 months, he reached out but nothing happened, so he scheduled an in-person meeting during his next trip through the area.

“I had this whole sales pitch about why I would be good for the Butler,” Rosenthal said. “Before I could get to my pitch, he offered me a show.”

Rosenthal brought 25 paintings to the Butler for the originally planned March opening, and about 15 are included in “Life Examined.” He said he tried to pick the best example of the different subjects he’s focused on during his career.

“I just didn’t want to repeat myself,” he said. “From my magnolia paintings, I chose the most impressive. What’s my best twilight in Chicago painting? … I wanted to have each painting be potentially someone’s favorite.”

Rosenthal specializes in “plein air” work, painting outdoors and capturing his landscapes and cityscapes live instead of working primarily from photographs, although that is a component of his work. What makes it unique is the scale of Rosenthal’s paintings. He isn’t setting up a 16-inch-by-20-inch canvas on a lightweight easel. He’s renting a truck and hauling a 10-foot-long canvas that has to be secured to a 100-pound easel with Gorilla Tape, “So I don’t have a giant hang glider,” he said.

In an interview in March when the show was supposed to open, Zona said, “I’ve had an ongoing argument with a colleague at Youngstown State over the years, who believes that art can be 4-by-5 inches or 4-by-5 feet and both can be equally great. That’s true, but to me, scale is a factor unto itself. Giving a beautiful subject matter scale adds a presence to the work that you don’t get from a 4-inch-by-5-inch painting. It envelops you, overwhelms you, particularly the cityscape paintings. When you can hardly see what’s on the wall on either side, it’s an interesting feeling. It does seem to envelop you.”

Rosenthal compared the smaller color studies he will do of a subject to looking at something through a window. When viewers get up close to one of the larger, finished works, “It’s almost like walking inside the painting.”

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