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Tobey The Man Master of Realism Beyond Realism LIFE & WORK MURALS FRAGMENTS
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ALTON S. TOBEY
Tobey's intense involvement with historical research, as well as his reputation for absolute accuracy in all his projects led to his work being commissioned by a number of companies as collectible plates, which were very much in vogue in the 1970's and1980's. The painting above for the cover of the magazine was Tobey's own self portrait.
Images of some of his better known collectible works are included here, in addition to those originally published in this Plate Collector magazine article about his work, printed in it's entirety below.
Murals to Plates"
by Susan K. Elliott
"Plate Collector" magazine
August 1, 1981
There are no accidents in a painting by Alton S. Tobey. By the time he gets to the painting stage, so much research has gone into the subject that whether it be a Siberian Tiger portrait for a collection of 50 cats or a bloody massacre scene from the Russian Revolution. each detail is precise and accurate.
In the plate field, Tobey now applies the same close attention to his mural plates for the Ghent Collection, and in the past designed historical and Christmas issues for the Franklin Mint and Royal Doulton.
Describing himself as "the fastest brush in the East"." the 67-year-old Larchmont, N.Y. artist once demonstrated his talent for both research and speed in a collection of 300 paintings on American History for a 12-volume Golden Books set. Tobey estimates that there may have been 2,000 hands in all the paintings, completed in an exhausting 18 months in the early '60s. [To see paintings from the series, see our Golden Books page elsewhere in the Published Works section on this website.]
Shown above are the covers from the 12 volumes of the "Golden Books History of the United States", for which Tobey completed over 350 individual paintings.
The publishers were so delighted by Tobey's feat that they sent him and wife Rosalyn on an all-expenses-paid 64-day vacation to Europe. Projects such as this haD fine-honed his ability to work quickly without sacrificing quality. Remembering the job, Tobey said:
There were no second thoughts. Once a thing was done, there was such a pressure to continue that the result was that I just had to decide the correct shape, speed, color and texture before I put on a stroke. And by the time the last painting was done, I was reasonably finished as well"
--he said, revealing a flash of the dry humour which punctuates his conversation.
This humor finds expression in Tobey's largely non-commercial work, such as a large adaptation of Rodin's "Thinker," a contemplative gorilla in painter's smock, done in green, which hangs in his living room.
"I can tell you this much," Tobey said, pointing to the painting. "I'll be very sad if this painting goes. Simply because I'll have to patch the wall in back of it."
The house is filled with Tobey's paintings, many of them abstracts, using an alphabet of curvilinear shapes he developed over a 15-year period. In his basement studio, reached by descending an iron spiral staircase, paintings of every description fill several small rooms adjacent to his main work area.
The first group of hanging paintings that ones sees shows Beethoven in thought, accomplished in a series of large and small works with the great musician's head expanded, compressed and vibrating in simulation of the explosion of his genius during creation. (Images of all seven of the Beethoven series of paintings can be found at the end of our "portraits" page on this website.)
A turn to the left leads to the main studio where a portrait in progress of his 27-year-old son David (an accomplished violinist now playing in the orchestra of the Broadway musical Sugar Babies) stares across the room at a portrait, still in the preliminary green base state, or a prominent New York physician. An easel in the next room holds a completed portrait of a Catholic cardinal, resplendent in red vestments.
(Many other portraits of famous and some infamous people can be found on our "Portraits" pages elsewhere on this website.)
Abstract and realistic works exist side by side, illustrating the two sides of Tobey's schizophrenic painting style. An experienced muralist, he was just completing a 13-year commission depicting the life of General Douglas MacArthur.
Tobey working on one of the MacArthur Murals
The Ghent Collection [who had published a number of plates based upon original paintings by Norman Rockwell and other famous contemporary painters and illustrators] suggested he do a plate mural to honor Israel's 30th anniversary. After completing the sixth MacArthur Mural, one of a group installed between 1966 and 1977 in the MacArthur Memorial building in Norfolk, Va., Tobey turned his skills to making a miniature mural of the highlights of Israel's history for Numa and its mail-order division, Ghent.
"I find it quite fascinating because I consider these as murals. They could be expanded to 20 times the size and they would be very handsome murals, so that they're not just episodes, but they're designed for a circular area. I construe them as essentially miniature murals, which is a sort of contradiction."
"The Promised Land" by Alton Tobey
After seeing Tobey's work for the Israeli issue, Ghent decided to follow it with a unique series of annual plates commemorating the important events of the year just past. Selling the plates sight unseen, the plates were described to collectors by the types of subjects they would contain.
1981 "Memories" 1977 "Memories" 1984 "Memories" Three of the "Memories" plates that Tobey designed for the Ghent Collection. Each edition was limited so that the number of the plates produced corresponded to the number of the year in which they were made.
A format developed for the placement of important news events in the plates. With suggestions from Ghent and his own notes on what should make the Memories plate review, Tobey begins work. Explaining that "there's always an element of incoherence" in the murals, Tobey calls the plates "literally a Roxie stage of events and individuals."
"Nevertheless, there is a certain organization. Usually in the upper left-hand area is the obituary. If a person is in the upper left-hand area, they had better get worried. And, of course, occupying the center of the plate is the important event. This year it will be the present President, plus the Saturn. There's usually the sport area diagonally across the plate at the lower right, depending on the emphasis."
Subsequent plates for Ghent have included The Pilgrim of Peace, a tribute to Pope Paul VI, and The Official 1980 Olympic Winter Games plate, as well as another Olympic plate for the ill-fated 1980 Summer Olympics held in Moscow without U.S. participation.
Pilgrim of Peace Plate 1980 Winter Olympics 1980 Summer Olympics "This design was an extraordinary challenge, because I had to depict a variety of events in a way which would convey the incredible excitement of the Winter Games. I studied hundreds of photos of past Olympics, to be able to feel the essential nature of each event, and then arranged my interpretations in a design almost like an island, surrounded by snow -- white china. I think it's a dynamic approach to an unusual and very challenging project. I am very pleased with the results."
--- Alton Tobey
on the "Winter Olympics" plate.
Born in Connecticut, Tobey is fond of joking that he "loafed until he was three." His father was a uniform tailor responsible for outfitting such groups as the Connecticut Governor's Footguard, the Horse Guard and sometimes the police department.
Tobey's oil portrait of his father, that is in the collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, CT. Tobey was awarded a full scholarship for his fourth year at the Yale School of Fine Arts for this portrait.
Encouraged by his family to go ahead and be an artist if that's what he wanted, Tobey vividly recalls overhearing a conversation between his mother and one of his many aunts (his mother was one of 17 children).
"I've been drawing and sculpting as far back as I can recollect. My mother, particularly, was very supportive. I can remember being underneath the kitchen table at a rather tender age doing some drawing. It was a large table and there was a forest of legs surrounding me.
"I can hear what my aunt's saying to my mother, 'What have you got against the boy? He's going to die in a garret in Greenwich Village. He's intelligent, why don't you make him a doctor or a lawyer or a businessman?' And I can remember my mother replying, 'If he wants to be an artist, let him be an artist'."
A graduate of the Yale School of Fine Arts, Tobey's achievements since have ranged from meeting the need for a mathematics instructor at Pratt Whitney Aircraft in a Navy training program during World War II ("I stayed one lesson ahead of my class") to going on assignment for LIFE magazine in the jungles of Guatemala to record an archaeological dig conducted by the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1950s.
Another LIFE project had him collaborating with a Chinese professor living in Formosa who "was an old man, a diabetic, semi-blind and allowed to read for only an hour a day."
One of the Shang Paintings for Life magazine that Tobey researched in China.
As Tobey completed drawings for the Epic of Man series on the ancient Chinese Shang Dynasty, a LIFE courier plane would deliver them to the professor for his critique and return them to the artist for further work.
"I would make a more complicated, a more finished drawing and he would red pencil that. Then I would have something that was half finished and it would be flown over, back and forth, in special trips by this LIFE courier plane. I would hesitate to venture how much this thing must have cost them."
LIFE assignments took him to Mexico and Peru for research.
An indefatigable worker, Tobey currently juggles portrait and
plate commissions with illustrating a book on archaeology for
Random House that will involve 50 paintings and meticulous
His murals are found all along the East Coast, in private homes and public institutions in Washington D.C., six at the MacArthur Memorial in Norfolk, Va.; a 47- by 11-foot mural at the American Bureau of Shipping in New York City and 14 at the Hillandale Museum at Chadds Ford, PA.
In addition to his Ghent plates, Tobey has designed several of the Royal Doulton Christmas Around the World plates (Norway, Poland, Holland, and the Unites States), a Lucien Picard limited edition gold medal, and the Franklin Mint pewter Battle of Bunker Hill plate in the Famous American Battle series.
Shown above are a few of Tobey's religious subjects. Click on any one of them above to bring up a larger image, then use your browser's "back" button to return to this page. Original paintings for some of these and other religious subjects can be found on Tobey's Religious Paintings page. Some of these paintings are also available to purchase direct from the estate of the artist for a limited time. Contact us for details.
to the World Book Encyclopedia, one finds that the art
in the entire section on prehistoric man is Tobey's, as is a
page on the history of ships and another on Stonehenge.
His versatility of style and curiosity provide this artist with an ever-expanding universe of possible subjects. "I would be bored stiff working in a single style," Tobey said, preparing to meet his appointment with a subject for a portrait sitting, a fragment in his weekly schedule of omnivorous living.
Future additions to these pages will include information on many of the limited and open edition prints that have been published of Tobey's paintings and other artwork. If you are interested in updates, please email us, and we will let you know when this material is added.