last supper

Titian Meets West Side Story: The Work of Edward Melcarth

BC Forbes Galleries, on view through November 1, 2014

It is unusual to find an artist who is brave enough to fight against a current trend in painting. One such artist was Edward Melcarth. Although Abstract Expressionism was the style of choice throughout the 1950's, except for his early career, Melcarth worked as a figurative painter until the end of his life. Born in Louisville, Kentucky on January 31, 1914, Melcarth studied and trained at Harvard College with Karl Zerbe, and at the Academie Ranson, Atelier 17, in Paris. But it was in the city of Venice that Melcarth found his inspiration. He used the Italian Baroque style – especially the rich colors of Titian, Veronese, and Tintoretto – to depict the America of the 1950s. He borrowed from these painters their agitated design and decorative spirit; foreshortened perspective pervades his canvases. Melcarth's work is full of arbitrary shadows, twisted poses, and huddled forms. There is a certain mystery and heroic repose to his windswept figures. And although he always painted from reality, it was the romance of a given scene that was most important to him. He brought to canvas the urban drama of the Eisenhower and Kennedy era in much the same way that Arthur Laurents and Jerome Robbins brought it to stage and screen with West Side Story.

Melcarth's subject matter is diverse, from the very temporal to the mythological and biblical; however, the participants are almost always clothed in modern-day dress. He painted the picturesque brutality of city life: waitresses, construction workers, medics, bikers, prostitutes, and junkies.

A prolific draftsman, Melcarth created numerous sketchbooks and portfolios of drawings. As a muralist, he executed the decorative program for the Rotunda of the Hotel Pierre and the ceiling of the Lunt Fontaine Theater – only the former can still be seen today. In addition, he worked on the lobby and auditorium of the Rooftop Theater, parts of the Time Life Building, and the IBM building.

The artist was a member of the National Society of Mural Painters and the Architectural League. He was also an instructor in painting and drawing at University of Louisville, Parsons School of Design, Columbia University, and University of Washington. Between 1965 and his death on December 14, 1973, he divided his time between New York City, where he taught at the Art Students League and Venice, a city of artistic inspiration where he focused on sculpture.


Image above: Edward Melcarth, Last Supper, Oil on canvas