Early Years

An abridged biography

Lack’s pet dog Zip, 1943 Pen & Ink on tan paper, 6×9

RICHARD F. LACK was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on March 26, 1928. He grew up in the southern part of that city among primarily Scandinavian immigrant families. His father was a dentist whose family emigrated from Germany. His mother’s parents came from Norway. When he was four, Lack’s parents gave him a series of finely illustrated books edited by Olive Beaupré Miller called My Bookhouse. The boy had a natural interest in fantasy. The stories and the pictures, many of them by prominent illustrators of the period, made a deep impression on him. These books planted the seeds for paintings that he would do later in life./p>

Lack's Orchestra double bass-600pxl

(Left) The Roosevelt High School Orchestra. Lack is in
the back row, far right, with his double base.

Lack showed an interest in music from an early age. He earned money for his first violin at the age of 12—a twelve-dollar Sears and Roebuck special—and took lessons for several years. He often took the streetcar to concerts of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra. In high school he played in the orchestra. Later, he played for more than 10 years in the Minnetonka Symphony, a well-regarded community group.

Lack responded with great enthusiasm to pictures that he saw at school, his grandfather’s home and at the museum. When he was a child he received a set of watercolors as a gift. Some of his first teachers recognized his artistic talent. While working on a drawing at Christmas time, Lack overheard his second grade teacher remark to someone, “That’s Richard. He’s going to be an artist when he grows up.” That statement made a deep impression on the young boy; the idea of becoming an artist was sown in his mind.

Lack had developed a “rather flashy” pen and ink technique by the time he was in the fourth grade. He gave one of his ink drawings to his teacher. He was proud of the drawing, in spite of a few spots he had botched and had to erase. The teacher did not say much, but asked him to stay after class. When he approached her desk later, excited and expecting praise, the teacher asked him if he had drawn the picture. When he said that he had, the teacher chastised him for lying. She refused to believe that he did the drawing, even when he swore “on a stack of Bibles.”

That incident discouraged him, but he remained interested in art. Young Lack became known as the boy who could draw. He drew a fine pen and ink drawing of his favorite dog that still hangs in his room. When he was 15, he was given special permission to draw from life in classes held at the Walker Art Center. At that time, the Walker still housed the art collection of Thomas B. Walker. Paintings such as Christians at the Tomb of the Virgin, by Jules Lecomte du Noüy, and a respectable collection of landscapes by 19th-century American painters like Frederic Church and Thomas Moran still hung on its walls. It had not yet become the powerful promoter of avant-garde art that it was in the 1960s. Lack also began painting watercolors from nature and did several scenes of neighboring houses and streets. He was fascinated by the English watercolorists and copied watercolors from books on Winslow Homer.

Lack was a “bookish kid,” and spent most of his free time in the library listening to records, or looking at books in the arts section. In his early teens, he read Willem Van Loon’s The Arts. After that, he read every book about artists that he could find. He enjoyed illustrated art books and admired the work of Rembrandt and Frans Hals. When he opened a book on Rubens he fell in love. The work of the Flemish master made an indelible impression on him, an impression that would profoundly influence his art throughout the coming decades.

Lack graduated from high school in 1946 and enrolled in the Minneapolis School of Art. He stayed there for two and one-half years on a partial scholarship. The school was filled with ex-GIs looking for careers in the growing graphic arts industry. In his class there were only four or five men interested in fine art. One of them was Donald Koestner (b. 1923). Lack and Koestner shared a love for the Old Masters and struck up what would become a lifelong friendship. Both were frustrated by the direction of the school. Most of the veterans were there to study commercial art. The fine arts department taught nothing of real value. The instructors did little more than encourage the students to follow the latest fads. Lack had no interest in those fads. His heart was set on learning to paint in the tradition of the Old Masters. He recognized that to do so required specialized knowledge, a knowledge that none of his teachers could provide. He found and read a new book called Twilight of Painting. It perfectly explained his situation, but the young man never thought of the author as a potential teacher.

New York

By 1949 Lack was discouraged. He quit art school and took a train to New York. New York was the center of the art world, and it seemed to Lack that if good schools and good teachers were to be found, he would find them there. Lack took advantage of the many treasures in New York, visiting the museums and studying works of art. He copied paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art every morning. In the afternoons he went to galleries and studios in search of a teacher. Lack looked for Frank Vincent DuMond at the Art Students League, but DuMond was old and had retired from teaching. For weeks he trudged around the city, but on every hand his search proved fruitless. To Lack’s eye, the artwork being done in New York was just as bad as the artwork he had seen in Minneapolis, and the bias against traditional art was even stronger. Discouraged with the New York art scene, Lack decided to stay and copy at the Metropolitan until the first of the year, then he would return to Minneapolis, give up art, and study chemistry at the University of Minnesota. If he couldn’t paint well, he didn’t want to paint at all.

A Propitious Encounter

On one particularly dreary morning, Lack awoke tired and sick. He felt like staying in bed rather than going to work at the museum. He had almost decided to forego copying that morning when his practical Scandinavian conscience reminded him that hard work and perseverance were, at this point, all that he had going for him. He dragged himself out of bed and headed for the Metropolitan Museum, where he was copying the head of a Cardinal that was then attributed to Velásquez. Later that morning a young man named Robert Cumming, impressed by Lack’s copy, stopped to talk with him. It was an encounter that would change Lack’s life. Cumming was in New York for one day to purchase supplies for a mural decoration. He lived in Boston and was studying with an artist named R. H. Ives Gammell. Gammell, Cumming said, operated a small studio based on the European atelier system of training painters and was accepting students as apprentices. They went out for dinner and Cumming encouraged Lack to come down and see Gammell. Excited by the prospect of at last finding a teacher, Lack made plans to leave New York for Boston. In a few days he received a package from Cumming. It contained a copy of Twilight of Painting.

Robert Hale Ives Gammel: The Boston Tradition

Lack took a bus to Boston, arriving on New Year’s Eve. He had written to Gammell and called him after settling into the YMCA. Gammell told him not to come, a test of the young man’s desire to become an artist. Lack persisted and the older man relented, inviting him to his studio the following morning.

Gammell worked in Boston’s Fenway Studio Building. Robert Cumming, Gammell’s only student at the time, maintained a studio two doors down the hall. Lack brought a portfolio of drawings with him, primarily of horses at the police station in New York. Gammell saw Lack’s talent, and asked him to come back the next week for further discussion. Gammell liked to put potential students to the test. He took them to the Museum of Fine Arts and asked them questions about certain paintings and artists. The answers he received told him a great deal about the aspiration and perception of the student. When Gammell had ascertained that Lack was perceptive, talented and serious, he accepted him into his atelier.

These meetings with Gammell led to a teacher-pupil relationship that was to last for more than five years. In Gammell, Lack found a living link to the great traditions of the past. Gammell opened Lack’s eyes to the visual world of nature and the intellectual world of art history and philosophy. Gammell had been born in 1893, when members of the older generation were still painting and Modernism was not as yet at center stage. As a young man, Gammell had studied painting with several painters in Boston, the most notable one being William Sargeant Kendall (1869–1938). In 1913 he left to study in France. Although the academic system was crumbling, many artists who had been trained in it were still painting and teaching in Paris. Unfortunately, the finest of the academic painters had died; only a few lived into the 1920s. Those whom Gammell met had been their pupils. The severe training implicit in the paintings of Jean-Léon Gérôme, Leon Bonnat, Jean-Paul Laurens, William Bouguereau, and their contemporaries had not been given to their pupils. As teachers they merely dispensed minor corrections to large classes of students.

Disappointed, Gammell had returned to Boston. For a short time he resumed his studies at the Boston Museum School. He was eager to learn the principles of mural decoration, hoping to paint large figure compositions and wanting to learn how imagined scenes could be convincingly portrayed on canvas. His teachers, at least the best of them, had studied under excellent painters who had mastered these skills. Yet their own teaching was deficient. In their schools and art classes they told their pupils very little about procedures and nothing at all about picture-making. This frustration had led Gammell to the door of William Paxton.

William McGregor Paxton

William McGregor Paxton (1869–1941) was Boston’s quintessential impressionist. In general, the American impressionists were superior to those in France. They carried the skill of painting what they saw to a level seldom attained by the Frenchmen and rarely attained in the history of art. Paxton was one of the finest American impressionists. He had studied in America with Dennis Bunker and in France with Gérôme. Their training, superimposed on his remarkable natural gift for drawing, enabled Paxton to retain a sure grasp of form while pursuing the most subtle color effects. By temperament an impressionist, and living in a period when the impressionist ideal was universally accepted, Paxton dedicated his powers to setting down on canvas the beauty he found so stirring in nature, which he looked at with eyes of exceptional sensitivity and accuracy. It can be said that he accomplished this object more completely and faultlessly than any other painter working at that time.

The Uniqueness of Gammell’s Work

Gammell received an impressionist training from Paxton, but he was interested in painting decorative imaginative subjects in the academic tradition. Gammell began his career by painting impressionist pictures in the Boston tradition: portraits, nudes and interiors with primarily female figures. As he matured, this work became a stepping stone to painting subjects that were taken from ancient history, Greek mythology, ancient and modern literature and religion, contemporary history, and psychology, primarily that of Carl Jung. Gammell was a man of intense conviction and total dedication to his art. Between the two World Wars, through study, labor and help from Paxton, he was able to create a highly original body of work that was finely designed and well executed.

Twilight of Painting

During this period Gammell also devoted much time to analyzing the reasons for what he saw as the collapse of Western art in this century. His investigation focused on what he called the two great “approaches to painting,” the academic and the impressionist. His conclusions were brilliantly set forth in Twilight of Painting. Since the profession of art is transmitted from one generation to the next through the training of painters, he emphasized the artistic aims and teaching methods of the practitioners of both approaches. His scholarly analysis is infused with the insight and practical understanding of a trained painter. This work was published in 1946.

Gammell saw from the history of art that the fundamental goal of teaching painters is to train the eye of the student to “see” relationships of line, tone and color in nature. All visual art is built upon this foundation. Nature should be the students’ primary guide. Concurrent with training the eye to see must be the impartation of a technical method that enables the student to render the relationships they are struggling to see. The ability to see and the ability to render develop simultaneously. If students cannot “see” relationships in nature, they cannot draw or paint them. Skill in the craft of painting is gained as the ability to see is acquired. In conjunction with the development of these skills, students must be shown the methods necessary to produce the kinds of pictures in which they are interested. In conjunction with learning to see and render, students must receive training in the fundamentals of composition and design. Fine painting is a combination of skillful craftsmanship and balanced, harmonious design. To give adequate attention to each student, their number must necessarily remain small. Unless masters can rely on the assistance of fully trained former students, or at least senior students who have reached an advanced stage of their training, they should have no more than three or four students.

Gammell concluded that these interrelated goals could only be achieved “through prolonged and close association between the pupil and a thoroughly competent practitioner who day by day expounds his point of view, explains his working approach and directs each student in accordance with his individual needs …”1 The best environment for this to take place is a small atelier or studio/workshop. The ideal atelier would be run by a knowledgeable and skillful painter whose work embraces both the academic and impressionist approaches to painting. To ensure the quality of instruction the master maintains complete control of the means and method of education and the acceptance and dismissal of students. If possible, the instruction should be given at no cost. Students would pay only for supplies, model fees and studio expenses. The master is thereby not indebted to retain inferior or insubordinate students.

Gammell was eventually able to put his theory of training painters into practice. After the publication of Twilight of Painting, aspiring young artists began to knock on his door. “From these,” he states, “a small nucleus of promising students evolved under my direction.”2 One of these promising students was the young Richard Lack, who had now become a part of the Boston Tradition.

The Atelier of Ives Gammell

Gammell’s atelier was rather loosely structured. For some time Lack spent his mornings helping Cumming do simple tasks on the cartoons for a mural that Gammell was doing for the Industrial National Bank in Providence. Gammell paid him for this work, which also included some underpainting and posing. In the afternoons he began to draw casts. After his work on the mural was completed, mornings were spent drawing the figure in a large studio situated between that of Gammell and Cumming. Lack was quick to recognize that Gammell was the only living source able to teach him the practical knowledge and skills of picture-making that came from the European academic and American impressionist traditions. He was determined to get as much of this information from Gammell as possible.

After studying for several months, Lack returned to Minneapolis with the intention of going back to Boston for a longer period. While home, he was drafted. The Korean War interrupted Lack’s studies for two years, but he kept up a vigorous correspondence with Gammell. In 1953 he returned to Boston. True to his convictions, Gammell kept his atelier small. Cumming was still there when Lack returned, as well as a new student, Robert Hunter, who drew with them. During his third year they were joined by Robert Cormier, who shared a studio with Lack. Lack generally arrived at 8:30 a.m. and chatted with Gammell (who would often begin the conversation with challenging questions such as, “What do you think of Victor Hugo?”) until 9 a.m. From 9 a.m. to noon the students drew the figure in pencil and charcoal. After the students had adequately modeled one charcoal drawing, they concentrated on smaller studies in pencil. In these drawings, of shorter duration (two or three days), they endeavored to render the gesture, shapes and anatomy of the model rather than spend time modeling the form. Modeling could be better learned in their studies during the afternoons. They worked in the afternoon from 1 to 4 p.m., first drawing and painting casts in black and white, then painting still lifes and head studies in color. Lack did one pastel of the nude, but the students never painted the nude figure in color.

The foundation of Gammell’s instruction was impressionist. He imparted the principles of visual impressionism that he had learned from Paxton. Lack therefore received a thorough grounding in the theory and practice of visual impressionism. Like Gammell, however, Lack was also interested in the academic approach to picture-making. He continually brought his own compositions to Gammell, whose insight about design, gesture, placement, scale, pattern and color were penetrating and helpful.

Summers in Provincetown

During the summers, Gammell painted landscapes in Provincetown on Cape Cod. He worked in a studio that he rented from Henry Hensche. Lack and Cumming rented small second-floor studios nearby. Lack painted head studies in the mornings and Gammell came by two days a week to offer instruction. As Gammell never learned to drive, Lack acted as his chauffeur in the afternoons, driving him to various locations to paint landscapes. Lack and Cumming set up easels and painted landscape sketches in Gammell’s vicinity. They were often joined by Hunter and a former Gammell student, George Melnick. The object was to gain experience seeing and painting out-of-door color. The sketches were painted rapidly, few taking more than two hours. Gammell would stop by and look at the students’ work, offering advice and painting color corrections on their sketches.

The Abilities of Ives Gammell

Artistically, Gammell was admirably qualified to teach. His study under Paxton gave him practical insight and experience with the principles of visual impressionism. His own interest and experience with the aims and procedures of academic art, including mural painting, gave him a broader base of knowledge than most of his contemporaries. He also painted landscapes. Gammell’s most extraordinary gifts were in the area of decorative color and design. Gammell separated this area into composition: the balanced and harmonious disposition of values; and design: the decorative shapes made by these values. Gammell was highly cultured, a true intellectual, and had an extensive knowledge of history, literature and music. His knowledge of art history was comprehensive. He had immense knowledge and insight about art, and Lack listened carefully to his mentor when he discussed painters and painting.

Beautiful Mysteries: Three Ways Artists View the World

Gammell opened Lack’s eyes to the practical elements of picture-making. Before meeting Gammell, Lack had viewed paintings as “beautiful mysteries.” Gammell provided the key that unlocked the secrets of those mysteries: the knowledge of how paintings were made. The key was not in esoteric rituals designed to unleash the creative power within, but in the practical thinking and procedures that an artist actually uses to make pictures. Gammell separated visual artists into three distinct, but interrelated categories: the impressionist, the decorator and the imaginative painter. The impressionist, such as Velásquez, is inspired by the look of the visible world and wants to record it on canvas; the decorator, such as Tiepolo, sees spaces and desires to fill them with beautiful patterns; the imaginative painter, such as Raphael, is inspired by literature, history and poetry, and wishes to create work based on literary or symbolic themes. As individual students began to manifest their particular sensibilities, Gammell steered them in one of these three directions. Lack was interested in all three categories of painting, and his studies with Gammell provided the foundation upon which he would build and develop his art. The sight-size method that he learned from Gammell served him well when doing still life and portraiture in the future. At the time, there was no other place where he could have received a comparable education.

A Trip to Europe: Lessons From the Masters

In the spring of 1955, Lack received a $2,000 scholarship from some of Gammell’s wealthy friends. This enabled him to travel in Europe for three months. He went by ship to Naples and then by bus to Rome. He was very thorough, studying every work of art that he could find. He went to Venice and Florence. In Florence he met Pietro Annigoni who, as a result of his portrait of Queen Elizabeth, had several pupils from London. Lack chummed around Florence with some of them for a few days. He then traveled to Germany and ended his trip in Paris. This exposure to so many masterpieces of the past served to fuel Lack’s already burning desire to do more creative work on his own.

Soon after he returned to Boston, Lack and a couple of other students went to Provincetown. There, the routine was relaxed. Lack had a small studio of his own and wanted to develop more personal ideas away from the influence of Gammell and the Boston impressionists. Two years earlier, on a street in Provincetown, Lack had met a charming and beautiful girl named Katherine Vietorisz. Her family had fled to the United States from Hungary after the Second World War. She was a jeweller who lived in Pittsburgh and had come to Cape Cod with a friend to see the sights and place their jewelry in some of the shops. Her striking beauty immediately attracted the eye of the young art student. With unabashed boldness he had invited her to a bohemian night club called the Ace of Spades. Their friendship blossomed and they fell in love. She moved from Pittsburgh to Boston. Before leaving for Italy he had asked her to be his wife. Now, filled with enthusiasm from his European sojourn, Lack asked Katherine to sit for a portrait. “I had the memory of Rubens, Frans Hals, Van Dyck and the Italians fresh in my mind,” he remembers. “I had purchased a rather picturesque hat in Italy, thinking that it would make an attractive prop. Katherine sat for me on Sundays, and I painted her in that hat.”

On September 12, 1955, Richard Lack and Katherine Vietorisz were married. In Katherine, Lack had found his soul mate. She was in perfect sympathy with his artistic goals and understood the creative impulse of the artist. Throughout his career she was a willing model, faithful co-worker and ardent supporter. In later years, her skill at organization, networking and fundraising would keep Lack’s own atelier running efficiently. She was a fine artisan, designing and fashioning enameled jewelry, a skill she had learned in Austria. Lack and his young bride stayed in Boston for almost two more years. They lived in a duplex on the outskirts of the city. Lack did a variety of work in the Fenway studios and he continued his studies with Gammell.

Return to Minnesota

In 1957, the Lacks returned to Minnesota. They stayed with his parents for a short time and then rented a house in south Minneapolis. Lack renewed his acquaintance with Koestner. Ironically, Lack went to the Minneapolis School of Art looking for a job teaching. After viewing his work with a puzzled expression, the person interviewing him said, “I don’t think you would be happy here.” The art school system had been completely taken over by Modernism, and was unsympathetic, even hostile, to what Lack was doing.

With the increased responsibilities of married life, Lack needed an income. Through a friend, he was hired as a full-time teacher at Art Instruction Schools, where Koestner was also teaching. He painted in the evenings and on weekends. Katherine got a job at a local printing company. After saving some money, the couple looked for property with the tranquillity of semi-country living. They found a partially finished basement home with good northern exposure in suburban Glen Lake, Minnesota. The yard was full of stately oaks and a charming abundance of purple petunias, four o’clocks and lilies. They purchased the property and christened it “Twelve Oaks.”

Two years later, after careful studies of the lighting in works by the Old Masters, and information that he had received from Gammell, Lack built his studio. He constructed it with the help of friends, especially Koestner, who had built his own studio on the banks of the Mississippi River near Hastings, Minnesota. The spacious studio had two skylights facing north at a 45-degree angle, corresponding to the suggestion given by Leonardo da Vinci in his notebooks: “The light for drawing from nature should come from the North in order that it not vary …. The height of the light should be so arranged as that every object shall cast a shadow on the ground of the same length as itself.”3 One skylight was 5×7 feet, for interiors and larger works; the other was 4×4 feet, a “spotlight effect” for certain kinds of portraiture and still life. A north picture window provided low, flat light for additional variety. All of the lighting could be adjusted or blocked out by curtains. A door to the outside allowed clients and models to enter without disturbing anyone in the house.

After the studio was completed, Lack settled into a routine reminiscent of the discipline he had acquired in Gammell’s studio. Starting promptly at nine in the morning, he worked in the studio until four, with one hour off for lunch. In the evenings, often late into the night, he studied the works of the Old Masters, carefully analyzing the compositions, examining the spotting and distribution of values, and looking for the rhythm and flow of lines. During the ensuing years, Lack became one of the most accomplished and versatile painters in his tradition working in America.

Footnotes:

1 R. H. Ives Gammell: An Autobiography of His Life and Work, The American Society of Classical Realism, 1995, “Tastemakers Triumphant,” p. 3. 2 Gammell, “Tastemakers Triumphant,” p. 3. 3 Jean Paul Richter, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, Vol. 1, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1970, p. 257.