Reiss, Winold 1886-1953

Winold Reiss’ boundless talent and inspired imagination produced some of the 20th century’s most indelible portraits. Born in Karlsruhe, Germany in 1886, Reiss achieved artistic fluency in the fine and decorative arts during his studies at the venerable Kunstgewerbeschule (College of Arts and Crafts) in Munich. The school’s unorthodox curriculum of graphic arts, interior design, and landscape and portrait painting laid the aesthetic seeds for the development of the artist’s unique style as a graphic and interior designer, and ultimately his maturation as a pioneer of American modernism.

In 1913, concerned about the foreboding political climate in his homeland, Reiss set sail for America. His decision to emigrate was a journey he was eager to take. Growing up he had been a voracious reader of the German writer Karl May’s popular novels of the American West. Reiss’ ocean crossing was fueled by his determination to pursue his romance with the “Wild West.” Confronted with the mundane realities of earning a living in New York City, Reiss was forced to put his travel plans on hold. In the intervening years, his multidisciplinary training provided the lifeline he needed to survive as an artist. Reiss immediately found work as an illustrator, interior designer and teacher.

In 1920 Reiss took what would be the first of many trips out west, to Montana, where he completed thirty-six portraits of Blackfeet Indians. The portraits were acclaimed for their humanity as well as Reiss’ bold and decorative use of color. The works were exhibited in the artist’s first solo show in New York and met with immediate success—all the pictures were purchased by one collector.

During this period, Reiss continued to produce portraits, including a series based on his travels to Mexico and an historic collection of pastels of African Americans that today reside in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. However, it was Reiss’ interior design commissions during the building boom of the 1920s that brought him income and recognition. But with the onset of the depression these opportunities seemed to evaporate overnight.
In the early 1930s, Henry Lustig’s commission for two new Longchamps restaurants in New York City helped revive Reiss’ career. The artist would go on to do all the interior design for the Longchamps restaurants until shortly before he died in the 1953.

Reiss produced the remarkable, mesmerizing pastels, Spanish Dancer and Bakelite Girl for the new restaurants. What patron wouldn’t be enticed by the glamour and “feel good” sensation of these works? Reiss’ dazzling use of color evokes the hyperrealism and rich saturation of color glorified in the golden age of

Reiss, Winold 1886-1953
Bakelite Girl, c. 1930s

Technicolor movie musicals. The heightened use of color had become
synonymous with the idealized look and feel of the American musical.

Reiss imbues his subjects with the charisma of a Hollywood star. Reminiscent of the screen sensation Carmen Miranda, Bakelite Girl, takes its name from a form of hard plastic, popularized in jewelry in the 1930s. Reiss’ clever use of a tropical palette and the suggestion of a sunny glow outlining his subject, transform the reality of bakelite into an alluring accoutrement. In Spanish Dancer, Reiss dramatically changes his color scheme employing an intense palette of hot pinks, black and a bold ultramarine blue to amplify the seductive qualities of the dancer. In both pictures, Reiss depicts his subjects with a coy and inviting gaze—riveting works that are impossible to turn away from.

“The Longchamps restaurants brought to a middle-class audience the glittery glamour of such highly exclusive haunts of New York’s café society…and represented the culmination of a decade’s search for an opulent and even playful modern language of form.”