Sunday, July 17, 2022

Museum Visit: The Art of Winold Reiss

Mural for business office - Winold Reiis

If you've never heard of Winold Reiss, you are not alone. He was an artist that came from Germany in the early 1900s. He despaired of the painting of style of Americans, still lost in pastoralism he thought. And so he brought a modern sensibility that runs through his various mediums.

The Museum of the Historical Society of New York mounted an exhibition on his work. Much of it unseen for decades. Ed and I went, and it was great.


There is no way to capture all of his work, or even themes, but I will pull some of the coolest, albeit out of historical order.

In the 1920s. Winold did a series of portraits of the people of Harlem. For his tribute website, it is described thus:

"...in 1922, he was chosen by the editor of the social welfare journal Survey Graphic to portray the major figures of the Harlem Renaissance for a special issue entitled Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro [March 1, 1925]. Dr. Alain Locke, Howard University philosophy professor and literary critic, was so impressed with Reiss's portraits that he chose him to illustrate The New Negro: An Interpretation [1925], the most important anthology of the Harlem Renaissance."

The portraits are fantastic; above a portrait of Langston Hughes, the great poet of the Harlem Renaissance. But the prevailing mood in New York and the US at the time did not afford a place for the negro in images. Particularly positive and successful representation. The pictures are shown at the gallery for the FIRST time since their debut in Harlem in the late 1920s.


The image of Langston Hughes in particular shows part of his style, which was realism of the subject, but a modernist, monochromatic background. The other portraits, above, are used to call out the subject against a light background.

He started, and loved, poster art. It was a big thing in Europe but only of middling importance in America. Although this is not the best of the examples, he did design them in the European Style. That was a high color main image, a background that is modernist with no more than 4 colors - muted, and unique typography. Because the poster below focuses on American's good will, the side bars are flags, not his usual modernist background.


He the 1920s - 1940s he did a lot of design work for restaurants and bar and the odd retail. 

These images are for the high class restaurant chain: Longchamps (defunct by the 1970s)

The Longchamps logo - not in the show, but designed by Reiss

Some of his best paintings, to me, came during this time. They are the semi-impressionist images I love (Edward Hooper also did something similar.

Three of these are Harlem cityscapes. The upper right was designed and painted for the Mercedes dealers (long since closed).

Ed and I both thought the exhibition was eye-opening.

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