Tobey The Man

      Master of Realism

    Beyond Realism
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The Artist as Researcher

Tobey with friend Ugo Mochi, who posed for the portrait of Antonio Stradivari (shown in the background). This painting was commissioned for the cover of the book "Violin Iconography of Antonio Stradivari," which is the world's most complete compilation of the works of this most famous of all violin makers.

       This painting and the process of its creation was chosen by American Artist magazine to be one of the main subjects of their May 1976 feature article by Eve Medoff on artist Alton S. Tobey. This article is printed here in full below, with permission from the publishers of American Artist Magazine.

            When Life magazine decided to run an illustrated series titled The Epic of Man, In the 1950's its art director faced more than the usual problems attendant on such a project: one of the sections was to deal with Neolithic Man. Although he interviewed many illustrator applicants, they failed to meet all his requirements. They were all good artists, but this assignment would take the combined skills of an anthropologist, archeologist, engineer and historian; in addition to those of a seasoned painter capable of finely detailed and accurate illustration. Where was he to find such a latter-day Leonardo?

            By one of those unaccountable strokes of luck, a young man walked into his office bearing a single drawing in his portfolio. It had been made more than six years before in a graduate anthropology class at Yale and depicted Neanderthal man in his natural environment, complete with tools, weapons, and other evidences of his place on the ladder of civilization. That artist was Alton Tobey.

            Tobey was a unique find, a man who not only met that art requirement but was equipped with a working knowledge of prehistoric man. At that first meeting, the art director, though immensely pleased that he had his man and could now attend other chores did not, in fact, realize the extent of his good fortune, But before he was through he would discover that he had "reeled in a ninedays' wonder."

           The rigors of research hold no terrors for Alton Tobey, painter, muralist, and illustrator; he is blessed with insatiable curiosity, that invaluable instinct no good researcher should be without. However, it is one thing to have a smattering of anthropology tucked among your credits, but quite another to be able to deal with any and every other type of subject matter. The day must inevitably come when the artist-as-researcher finds himself in unfamiliar territory. That is why, above and beyond the dictionary definition for research as "diligent and systematic investigation of subject," Tobey's consuming passion for knowledge for its own sake is largely responsible for his phenomenal career.





            A list of themes he has treated reads like a litany of subjects picked at random from an encyclopedia. They range from Inca Trephination (Skull Surgery as practised by the Incas, shown here) to Contemporary Cultural Mutilations in Pursuit of Beauty, both 8x12 foot murals in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, and Bronze Age Warfare, a painting in the institution's Museum of Technology; from The History of Ship Building (in the American Bureau of Shipping, New York City) to six panels depicting scenes in the life of General Douglas MacArthur at MacArthur Memorial, Norfolk, Virginia; from George Washington Displaying His Inauguration Suit (at American Cyanamid, Bound Brook, New Jersey) to Man and Power, Pyramids to the Atomic Age (selected illustrations for Golden Books Publications). The list goes on and on.

Tobey working on a MacArthur Mural

            Following Neolothic Man, other assignments from Life magazine included the Mycaenean Age, The Shang Dynasty, and, finally, five painting for The Russian Revolution series. These were titled Bloody Sunday (shown here), and The Mock Execution of Dostoevsky.

Charcoal sketch for
"Bloody Sunday"

            Resources of the research department of Life magazine were apparently infinite; Tobey's digging for series unearthed unexpected treasures, like the actual hats worn by the crew of Potemkin, which he reproduced with loving accuracy. The department also furnished him with a book that depicted every uniform worn by the Imperial Army. Also available for study were pictures of icons, sabres, crutches, streets, shop fronts, and, of course, photos of the Narva Gate (where the massacre on Bloody Sunday took place).

Mutiny on the Potemkin by Alton Tobey from LIFE magazine

            As is his way with each assignment, Tobey steeped himself in the subject; reading, making thumbnail sketches, allowing ideas to crystallize, then more library and archive research until every detail was accounted for. Beyond this, however, Tobey pursued the human prototypes he needed to portray the victims of Czarist oppression, tracking his quarry to the Lower East Side of Manhattan and the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. He sought out the old Jews who could tell him about the black days of the pogroms, and he listened avidly to their stories, mentally recording his emotional vibrations along with the facts.

             Luck led him to an actual survivor of the Narva Gate massacre, a man who was twelve years old when he found himself a part of a fleeing mob. The man recalled the frightening shock of advancing horses, how close he came to being trampled by their pounding hooves, and how, finally, he managed to find his way home, unobserved, by a circuitous route. He described his mother's joy on seeing her child alive, how she embraced him weeping, and then , as he began to remove his coat, how they both stared open-mouthed as it split precisely down the middle of the back. He had come that close to a Cossack sabre!

Bloody Sunday - cover for Life magazine

             This account of a hairsbreadth encounter with death was cherished by Tobey for its drama and emotion, and, inveterate researcher that he is, he used it to confound a fellow artist who protested that it would have been more accurate to show the Cossacks using knouts [clubs].. "Was ever a knout known to slice a coat in two?" was Tobey's triumphant response.

             Since Bloody Sunday was planned as a cover, which necessitated a vertical format, the artist decided to pinpoint the moment of terror when the horsemen swept through the archway and bore down on the terrified population, the crowd surging back to avoid their swinging sabres. The viewer, placed in the very midst of the helpless mass, is trapped like the rest, about to be trampled under the oncoming hooves.

             Another painting of this group, the mock execution (arranged for Dostoevsky by the Czar as a warning to dissidents), similarly required a vertical composition. It also called for researching grave clothes, uniforms, rifles, and shipboard setting. Tobey himself to visualize the ground plan of the scene; "I close my eyes," he recalls, "and mentally walked around that deck, looking over the shoulders of the firing squad. Finally, I decided that to place the viewer directly behind the condemned men strapped to the posts would carry the strongest emotional impact.

The Mock Execution of Dostoevsky

             The Burning of the Manor Houses sent Tobey off in yet another avenue of investigation. In this painting, a group of peasants is seen displaying the spoils-the silver and finery of their oppressive masters. The question presented itself: what was the fashion in aristocratic dress at the time?

             Bearing in mind the Russian nobility's penchant for French language and manners, even ordering their clothes from Paris-it was only logical to consult French fashion magazines of the period and, with modifications to accommodate the colder climate, design an authentic wardrobe-the artist had turned couturier!

             Insatiable curiosity, diligent investigation, well developed powers of visualization, and consummate craftsmanship in rendering detail -- Tobey began early to exhibit these traits, so essential to the illustrator of factual content. Drawing came as naturally as breathing and realistic drawing as easy and habit-forming as reading proved to be. But drawing and reading were not his only passions; he was fascinated by the way things work. At age eight he was a voracious reader of Popular Mechanics and of subjects that ranged from science fiction to model airplanes and physics. (Once he made a Roman catapult that demolished a neighbor's window.)

             After majoring in art as an undergraduate, he returned to Yale for his master's degree, studying anthropology, sociology, archeology, Chinese history, and pre-Columbian art. As we have seen, these have stood him in good stead throughout his career.

>             Tobey remained at Yale to teach for four years: a course in art history (Paleolithic art to Picasso), lectured on styles in painting, taught landscape painting (on location) as well as pictorial composition. He also taught perspective to architecture students, including the study of lights and shadows.

            He was painting portraits in New York (and not inundated by commissions) when the opportunity to work for Life presented itself. It was the appearance of his Neolithic Man painting that led to the three commissions from the Smithsonian. Since then, other commissions, including those listed above, have come his way. To each, Tobey brings his vast enthusiasm and eagerness to explore a new area of knowledge. His main difficulty apparently lies in getting so absorbed in reading up on a new subject that he puts off getting to work on the painting itself.

             Five years ago, Tobey received a commission that he approached with an interest amounting to total involvement. Much of his family life is concerned with music -- his wife is a pianist, and their son and daughter play several instruments in chamber music performances under her guidance. They attend orchestra concerts together, and both parents are fundraisers and advisers in Westchester Symphony, one of the country's most important cultural organizations.

            When Tobey's son was ready to exchange his practice violin for an instrument of quality, his father sought out an acquaintance, one Herbert Goodkind, whose encyclopedic knowledge of violins was well-known to him. "For several years," Tobey recalls, "Goodkind had been collecting data for a book later published under the title of Violin Iconography of Antonio Stradivari, a compendium of all the known Stradivari violins from the first one that left his workshop up to the present day. The provenance of each instrument would include its cost to successive buyers and even prices bid at auction.

             "Goodkind told me he would like a painting of Stradivari at work in his atelier if I could approach a reasonably authentic version, warning me that information about the Master was sparse and often of questionable accuracy. He lent me an old French volume long out of print and recommended Dover's reissue of a book on Stradivari's method of violin making by two brothers named Hill.

             "The book excited my interest. I couldn't wait to learn how a purfling, that black edge around the belly of the instrument, was made; how the F holes came by their particular shape. Superficially, they look alike on all violins, but close examination reveals that each maker had his own design. By Stradivari's time, the basic design had been already determined by the Amati family.

             "Initially, I couldn't tell the difference between a German and an Italian violin. I know the aficianados who can look at the scroll of a violin and say, 'this was made 50 years after Stradivari.' Well, with further study, I too became aware of differences in structure, appearance and nuances of tone.             

             "I learned that Stradivari traveled throughout the countryside surrounding Cremona in northern Italy, rapping his knuckles in different kinds of wood, listening for the right ring. The violin is a resonating instrument, and all the elements must resonate in phase in order to produce an optimum sound. If some vibrate at lower or higher frequency, it must be due to interference or deadening in spots. In old violins all resonances have solidified and all molecules are aligned in the same plane, so that you get more or less total participation."

The Violin Factory

            "I studied all the processes that Stradivari employed, then got permission to observe the violin makers at Wurlitzer, Francais, and Tatar workshops in New York City. I sketched their tools, took countless photos of them at work, and asked questions endlessly. I saw how a block of wood is cut for its visual effect. For example, a pie section cut across the grain produces a zebra striation. I learned there are no unmodified violins. If anyone today were to play a Strad that had come from his botega (or workshop), he would find it unsuited to the modern concert stage; such modifications as a lengthened neck, for example, have resulted from enlarged concert halls."

The violin drawing

             Tatar had formerly been head of the Cremona School of Violin Making. In his atelier, Tobey saw the "white violins," instruments all ready except for varnishing. They were remarkably pale, their wood maple except for the top, which was pine or spruce. These and the tools - knives, clamps, planes, and depth gauges - all appear in the final painting.

Woodcarver's tools used in violin making

             He heard one of the "whites" played and decided it had a very good sound. But utmost care and sensitivity are required for applying the varnish needed for protection: if too hard, a harsh sound will ensure: if too soft, a deadened tone results.

             Tobey noted the various types of varnish containers and brushes. "Varnishes ground by hand, resin similar to painters' resin. I Suspect," Tobey adds, "that each maker threw in his own special ingredient and identifying character to the tone."

             Having observed the process of violin making from start to finish, Tobey was ready to go ahead with the painting. However, before laying out a general plan he resolved, in characteristic fashion, to investigate the genesis of the instrument's silhouette. To this purpose he drew a series of intersecting arcs again and again until he determined which series looked right.

             Once sure of the graphic structure, he turned to the visualization of the setting. He had found a lithograph of Stradivari's house as it looked before changes were made by later tenants, and for his own satisfaction made a sketch of the house's façade. Then, with the aid of a floor plan, he was able to determine the direction of the light that entered the workshop and, therefore, the approximate position of the Master when he was working.

             The setting established, it remained to choose the specific step in the process to be illustrated. After considering various alternatives, he decided to portray Stradivari applying the final touch of varnish to a completed violin.

             Now, what about the man himself? What did he look like as craftsman at work, his face the purest expression of his devotion to a noble vocation? Since the only known portrait of Stradivari was itself in doubt (thought by some authorities to be that of Montiverdi), Tobey needed a model whose head would approximate his own idea of the subject's sensitive artistry.

             No sooner had he begun to consider the problem than he thought of his friend Ugo Mochi, a Florentine-born expert in the art of contouro (silhouettes cut out of black paper). Florence, he thought, was close enough to Cremona, and Mochi's strong, aesthetic features would do admirably. So it was settled that Mochi would sit for the head.

Sketch of Ugo Mochi

            Next Tobey considered the gesture itself, the act of applying the finishing touch to a masterpiece. All the time Tobey had been observing how the varnish was put on, he had been concentrating on the procedure, paying little attention to the hand of the varnisher. So back to the Wurlitzer workshop he went and watched with a sense of intense exhilaration as the late S.F. Sacconi, master violin maker, held the brush delicately and drew it almost lovingly across the surface of the wood.

Sketch of Hands

             Now he had everything he needed to proceed with and began working his sketches up to size. He made a careful drawing on the canvas, in charcoal, which he then fixed. Next he built up the white in impasto -- in the hat, vein in the forehead, shoulder, and highlight on the violin -- so that these areas would catch the light. He also underpainted the violin in an orange-red tone for warmth, the only undercolor he actually applied. Then he laid on the translucent glazes in the traditional way.

Tobey's son David posing for
varnishing the violin.

             When the painting appeared to be complete, Tobey found he was pleased with the way the head remained partly in shadow, lending mystery and drama to the act of creation. He was satisfied with the illusion of the hand moving slowly with the brush, which together with the look of utter absorption of the face expressed the man's joy in his work.

            Nevertheless, a puzzling uncertainty nagged at him. Where had his research let him down? He had learned from Diderot's Encyclopedia about the mold used by French technicians of half a century after Stradivari and had assumed it to be characteristic of the shape traditionally employed. But now he recalled that once, in passing, Rene Morel, the head of violin making at Jacques Francais in New York, had mentioned that Stradavari and later violin makers preferred the so-called "inner mold," which was developed before Diderot's time.

The artist's original sketch for the final painting.

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