An intense devotion to art that would take Alton Tobey on a lifetime journey spanning over six decades, and on stylistic artistic adventures that would encompass centuries of art, began when he was a young boy of only three. The artist himself recounts with a twinkle:
"I became an artist by bugging my mom. My art career actually began under the kitchen table. My mother wanted to get me out of her hair while she cooked, so she laid out some paper and pencils on the floor under the kitchen table."
That was in Middletown, Connecticut in 1917. Little did Rose Tobey know that with these pencils and paper in this impromptu kitchen studio -- she had set her son upon a life path that would lead to his becoming one of the most prolific and diversified artists of the 20th century. She would however, soon take note that there was something exceptional happening; and she became a big encourager of her son's talents. In a 1981 magazine interview, Tobey recalls:
"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'."
His mother's faith in Alton's talent and perserverance was confirmed soon after the family moved to New York City. Alton, at the tender age of nine, won a New York Metropolitan Museum of Art scholarship to attend night classes there. Other awards followed, culminating in 1934 in a four-year scholarship to the prestigious Yale University School of Fine Arts, the alma mater of such famous artists as Motherwell, DeKooning, Pollock, Kline and many others.
Tobey as a Yale undergraduate.
With the interruption of his work and studies by World War II, Tobey's talents were put to use by the Air Force; as men with artistic aptitude were needed to make blueporints for fighter plane parts. Due to Tobey's quick-start mastery, he was asked to teach these courses. He also filled the Air Force's need for a teacher of spatial geometry, which was a natural for him as a renaissance artist and a born teacher. During the course of his service he also authored an Army Guide on Camouflage. After his service, he returned to Yale, and completed his masters degree in fine arts. Enamoured with the idea of passing on his knowledge and abilities to others, he accepted Yale's invitation for him to teach at the university. This passion for teaching would follow him through the rest of his life.
Tobey receiving his MFA from Yale in 1948. Early Commissions and Murals
During these early years, Tobey worked on portrait commissions, won awards for two murals in public buildings in Hartford and New Haven Connecticut, (see the Hartford and the Camp Field murals on his Murals page) and pursued an active teaching career, both at Yale and privately. He also did a great deal of illustration work, such as his "Machine Age" paintings for the Pratt & Whitney Aircraft Company, shown below.
Two early photos of Tobey with a portrait (L) and the sketch for a mural (R).
Two of the artist's early historical mural commissions for the Hartford Conneticut Post Office (L) and the Camp Field Public Library (R). See the Murals section for more detailed views.
on illustration board
17.5 x 16
431. Machinist, Oil on canvas, 24 x 32
Available from Grapefruit Moon Gallery
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24 x 20
Home & Family
While teaching at Yale, seated in one of his classes was a beautiful young woman named Rosalyn who had chosen a painting class as an elective. (Back then women at the college were only allowed in the music and art schools). She was a student who would go on to become a well known pianist and music teacher. She would also become Mrs. Alton S. Tobey.
Rosalyn and Alton at their wedding (L) and together in a later photo (R).
Shortly after their marriage, Alton and Rosalyn had their first child David, and a few years later a daughter, Judy. On visiting the village of Larchmont in Westchester County, New York they instantly fell in love with the town -- in the spring Larchmont comes alive with a multitude of gorgeous, well kept lawns and gardens -- and it's a community close to the art center of the world, New York City.
Finding a house that would meet their needs -- for a large art studio, an art gallery and a teaching space; a music studio that could hold two baby grand pianos, and one that was conveniently located near major highways -- was a daunting challenge. They also wanted a place that would artistically reflect their modern individual artistic styles. They couldn't find a house that met any of these criteria, so Tobey just picked a parcel of vacant land at the intersection of two major roads, and it became a new canvas on which he would express his own artistic and architectural talents with a very personal house design.
Influenced by a love of the abstract that can be seen in his own curvilinear paintings -- and of what architects of the day were touting as "the homes of the future" -- Tobey designed and built his house. The neighborhood was not really ready for a very modern structure amidst the many vintage-style Tudor and colonial homes in the town; and their plans met with protests. The block elected a spokesperson to meet these new and different "artistic" people and find out about them.
But anyone who met Alton fell in love with him, and what started as an adversarial beginning developed into great friendships between their neighbors in Larchmont and the Tobey family. As Judy, Alton's daughter later said about him:
"I never met anyone who didn't fall in love with my dad. From 8 to 80, everyone who met him just loved being around him."
The new surroundings were a perfect place to work, entertain their new friends in the community and most importantly, to raise a family. Throughout his life, regardless of how many hours he spent at work or how many trips he made to remote places all over the globe, Alton's family was always the central pivotal point of his life. He often commented:
"Behind every great artist is a great wife and kids". Tobey the Teacher
Alton and Rosalyn's new home, studio and art & music school in Larchmont offered an opportunity for young and old alike to tap into the Tobey's creativity through the couple's teaching. Passing on their knowledge and experience in the arts would be a passion that stayed with both Tobey and Rosalyn for more than half a century. During all that time Alton inspired hundreds of students in private sessions, in local and regional school systems, and often as a community service, freely gifted by him as a way of his giving back to the world that had been supportive of his own work over the years.
Group photos with Westchester County school art teachers and Tobey leading a mural workshop sponsored by USA Today. The program was designed by him to teach art educators the basics of mural painting, which they could then pass down to their own students. Looking over students' work at a local class (L) and showing a young art critic an original painting for one of the Golden Books (R).
Tobey in the classroom. He regularly donated his time to visit schools and bring art to young people.
Around 1950 the president of Golden Books knocked on Tobey's door -- which began a long relationship with the publisher who ultimately commissioned him to paint over 300 illustrations for a dozen volumes in the series about events in American history from the discovery of the North American continent to the harnessing of atomic energy.
The covers of the twelve-volume set of the Golden Books History of the United States, for which Tobey created not only the covers, but also over 350 other original oil paintings about American History. Dozens of these paintings can be seen by visiting the Golden Books pages in the Published Works section on this website.
LIFE Magazine had also taken notice of the young artist with the unerring eye for detail and an extraordinary ability to bring history to life. For the next twelve years Tobey produced illustrations for books in the Epic of Man series, Man and Power, and created two of the magazine's covers in 1957. His paintings for the feature articles in these issues can be seen on many pages on this website on his Published Works pages.
Two of Tobey's covers for LIFE, 1957. For more details, and to see many of the rest of the paintings in the magazine articles, see the Published Works section.
In the 1960's, riding a long wave of successes in historical paintings, he became engrossed in creating art that was larger than life -- specifically murals. The Smithsonian Institution took notice and commissioned two of them for their Hall of Physical Anthropology. The first was Inca Brain Trephination, where Tobey was tasked with accurately recreating the scene of an Inca chieftain and doctor operating on the crushed-in scull of an Inca warrior. The second was Cultural Mutilations in The Pursuit of Beauty, about cosmetics through the ages. Both of these murals, and a dozen others, including details on their creation can be seen on the Murals pages on this site.
The two Smithsonian Institution murals: Study for "Trephinations" (L) and "Mutilations" (R). Details on the creation of these paintings can be seen in the Murals section on this site.
In the years to follow, these many projects as a muralist and historian took Tobey all over the world in a study of the people, cultures and details that would become parts of the paintings. The artist was always meticulous in his attention to the fine points, and insisted on absolute historical accuracy in anything he did. A profusely illustrated article in American Artist magazine on his art -- reprinted with permission of the publishers -- in the Published Works section on this website shows many examples of this attention to accuracy and detail. The photos below are just a few from his many exploratory journeys.
Some photos of Tobey, his family and of people and places he visited on his many trips to Europe, the Middle & Far East, Asia and Central & South America. Many of these travels were research expeditions for his murals and historical paintings. From upper left: searching ruins in Peru; a South American trip with the family; atop a temple in Machu Pichu; in South America; the family at the Piazza San Marco in Venice and again in Peru with local young people. Community Involvement
The Tobeys had been extensive travelers and adventurers in the 1950's and 60's on trips often made possible by the major institutions that had commissioned historical works. But Tobey always returned to his home in Westchester. For many years he had been active at home not only in education, but in artistic contributions to his local community. Although he was a leader in the national arts community, President of the National Society of Mural Painters, Artist's Equity of New York and an officer of many other arts organizations, (see his Opus Vitae page for a listing of his many memberships, awards and exhibitions), he never neglected his own home community. He spent many hours lecturing to groups and clubs pro bono and was very active with the Larchmont Historical Society, the Mamaroneck Artists Guild and many other local organizations.
For the tricentennial of his beloved Westchester County, he declared that a lasting memorial of the county's 300-year history must be recorded for posterity. Although funds were not immediately forthcoming, he volunteered to create a mural commemorating this history -- a 27 x 14 foot painting consisting of over a hundred portraits of important historical figures and past & present residents of his county.
Alton Tobey's mural "Roots of Westchester" was created for the county's Tricentennial. More details on the creation of this painting can be found in the Murals section on this site.
Tobey is shown here painting cut-out figures that he had created for a historical float featured in a local community celebration and parade. The artist donated a lot of his talent and time to community projects such as these.
This Tobey lithograph was donated by the artist to help raise funds to support the Westchester Symphony Orchestra.
Alton and Rosalyn's combined talents were also donated for fund-raisers in a unique form. The couple created special performances where Rosalyn would play different kinds of music on piano and Alton would, in the time it took her to play the pieces, draw stylistic busts of the composers that were meant to be visual representations of the music. Once they finished, the art was auctioned with proceeds to benefit the charity staging the event. The shows were a huge hit throughout the county, and they performed them often for different groups.Later, they would perform in Mexico City for diversified audiences.
The 1970's had opened up a new era for the Tobeys. Encouraged by their dear friends the Spencers, they discovered Mexico. Thirty years and 54 trips later it was clear that this country had become one of their favorite places on the planet. Through those many trips and amazing journeys, Tobey became a well-known artist in Mexico City, with many exhibitions of his work, multiple Mexican collectors acquiring his art and his appearing several times on national TV as the featured guest on the Mexican version of the Today Show.
Tobey at one of his many one-man exhibitions in Mexico City (L), and appearing with Rosalyn on Mexican television discussing his work (R).
The Tobeys made deep and long lasting friendships in Mexico and often spent weeks at a time visiting their many Mexican friends. Sadly, in 2002 Mexico would become the resting place for Rosalyn as a tragic car accident took her life on a windy road outside of Guadalajara. An article in The Larchmont Gazette can be found on the Gazette's web page about Rosalyn.
Tobey's Super-Realistic "Fragments"
The 1980's were a time of yet another artistic exploration - influenced by the love of creating murals, Tobey began to paint huge canvases of greatly enlarged portions of his subjects.
Fragments was the name he aptly gave to these new, highly dramatic paintings. A single hand became a thing of awe, a portion of a face spoke volumes. The detail was exceptional -- every strand of hair, pore of skin, blemish, vein and freckle was carefully rendered in giant size on these canvases.
Tobey with some of his Fragments. Many more of these paintings can be found on this website in the Fragments section. Abstract and Modern
Throughout all these years, while creating his historical realistic paintings, murals and other commissions, Tobey still vigorously worked on his own personal abstract invention - a style of painting he called Curvilinear, based upon Einstein's postulate that no straight lines actually exist in nature. Consisting of an abstract alphabet of symbols, this style evolved over a 30 year period evolving from flat black and white graphics and canvases eventually into dimensional full color sculptures and reliefs. A number of these paintings can be viewed on his Curvilinears pages, and more will be added in the future.
The artist at one of the exhibition of his Curvilinear works, (L) and with one of his dimensional sculptures (R). To see many of these paintings, created during six decades of his career as an artist, visit his Curvilinears pages. Tobey's Sense of Humor
Tobey is well known for his indefatigable sense of humor. Always ready to deliver a pun or comic statement with an absolutely straight face, some of this humor can also be found in the social activities he pursued and sometimes even in his paintings. The two humorous paintings below, of "Dogs Playing Golf" (possibly inspired by C. M. Coolidge's series of "Dogs Playing Poker") were published as offset lithographs; and his scathingly satirical tree showing the "Evolution of Man" below, appeared in National Lampoon magazine in its January 1974 issue. Like many other artists who were best-known or well-known for "serious" art, Tobey often signed these works with a pseudonym known only to his intimates, or he did not sign them at all.
He and Rosalyn annually attended the prestigious Artists' Equity Masquerade, where he once again excercised his artistic talents. He often came dressed in the regalia of a figure from one of his most recent historical murals; or more often in garb poking fun at himself or at his own profession as an artist. In the center picture below he came as a Mayan Chieftan from one of his paintings, The Temple at Tikal, and won the grand prize. He recalls:
"With a costume over seven feet tall, I was bound to be noticed, even in the sardine packed room!" In the center costume Tobey wears regalia reminiscent of his most recently completed mural -- a Mayan chieftan from his historical painting "The Temple at Tikal", a costume for which he won the first prize. In the one on the left, he frames himself as a painting at New York's prestigious Andre Emmerich Gallery; and on the far right he parodies a blind "art critic" with sunglasses and a white cane. In this photo, his pianist wife Rosalyn brandishes an old fashioned hearing-aid horn and a sign identifying her as a "music critic". Tobey mimics the pose of General MacArthur (l) in his portrait of MacArthur in the collection of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society in Mt. Pleasant SC; and that of labor leader John L. Lewis (r) in the collection of The J. L. Lewis Memorial Museum of Mining & Labor in Lucas IA; two of his most famous portraits. And . . .
. . . is this self-portrait a comment on the "struggle of the artist as he agonizes over the creative process" -- or a wink and a nod at many who take art and art criticism far too seriously?
Tobey in newspaper and magazine photos with some notable friends and personalities. Top row: with Mrs. Jean and the son of the late General Douglas MacArthur and other dignitaries at the presenation ceremony for his murals for the MacArthur Memorial (L); with his good friend, the famous silhouette artist Ugo Mochi (R). Bottom row: with Metropolitan Opera singer Robert Merrill (L) and with Cardinal Cooke upon the presentation of his portrait of Pope John Paul II (R). In Conclusion
Over more than six decades, Alton Tobey created thousands of paintings of important events in world history, made visual biographies of some of our country's best known heroes, celebrities and other figures; and created art of his own imagination in styles beyond realism that were uniquely his own. Throughout all of this, he remained a staunch family man, contributor to the community and art educator. In an interview with Lisl Marberg Goodman, Ph.D., in the author's book Death and the Creative Life, (Springer Publishing, 1981) Tobey says about his work:
" I have, at times, been absorbed in my work to the point of complete self-oblivion. Once I worked for thirty-six hours without a break -- to complete exhaustion; and while I was in the middle of it I didn't even notice. I simply could not stop -- I had to finish it. There are times one is so absorbed that one is simply oblivious to everything else. I can be so involved that I am no longer conscious of my needs or even of any pains. But there also have been many times when I felt the exhaustion -- when it was physically painful, but I just couldn't stop."
In ancient Greek mythology, Mentor was an old friend of Odysseus to whom the Greek hero had entrusted his household when he joined the coalition that sailed against Troy. Athena, assuming the shape of Mentor, became the guide of Odysseus' son, Telemachus; giving him prudent counsel. Since then wise and trusted advisers have been called "mentors".
Tobey working on finishing touches to his sculpture "Mentor and Telemachus"
Tobey's devotion to his work, family and community, and his insistence on truth and authenticity in everything he created makes him a true Mentor in a world where truth is often difficulty to determine with absolute certainty, and history is often revisionist. For the integrity of all his work, history must give Tobey profound thanks.
"An artist of world class proportions, a man of unwavering character and convictions, a generous and compassionate soul, profoundly introspective, abounding intellect, fabulous story teller, academecian, Cary Grant handsome, charming, ever the punster, and a loving husband and father."
[ LIFE & WORKS ]
[ SOCIAL COMMENTARY ]
[ OUTLINE BIOGRAPHY ]
[ THE MURALS ]
[ PORTRAITS ]
[ PUBLISHED WORKS ]
[ THE FRAGMENTS ]
[ THE CURVILINEARS ]
[ LATIN INFLUENCE ]