A master painter's retrospective: Mountains and Water
“You know what they say: ‘The smaller your boat, the better weatherman you are,’ ” said Zenowij Onyshkewych.
He may not be a household name but as a successful representational artist, someone who’s been paying his bills for decades by painting landscapes that look like landscapes and drawing people that look like people, Onyshkewych has steered the ship of his talent through all kinds of weather. And the result is a cargo hold full of beauties — landscapes of the Alps, cityscapes of Venice, seascapes of Long Island, bridges and trees and mountains, portraits that include a pope, a president, and caricatures of political figures that ran in papers like the New York Times.
A Ukrainian native who has lived in Ridgefield for some 40 years, Onyshkewych is the subject of a large and comprehensive show with more than 70 works of art at the Ukrainian Museum, 222 East 6th Street, New York, N.Y.
“Finally, they realized I’m still alive,” he joked.
The show runs through Jan. 17, 2016, and the museum hours are Wednesday through Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $8 for adults, and $6 for senior citizens, with children 12 and under admitted free.
The show is a major retrospective on Onyshkewych, featuring works in oils, watercolor, ink and pencil, spanning his 60-year career and ranging from portraits and caricatures to the rich representational landscapes that are the recurring subject matter he has returned to most frequently over the decades. Onyshkewych’s landscapes are diverse: The Old Bridge to Rockaway N.Y.; Farmhouse in Northern Italy; Ice on the Hudson; View of Mont Blanc; After the Storm, Tuscany; New York in the 60s.
Some of his painting was done on summer trips to Europe, when he’d hike and camp and paint.
“Switzerland, Italy and France, and then I painted a lot of time in Tuscany, Normandy,” he said.
“I’m painting in the mountains. I’d say, sometimes, you paint a mountain — happy. And then you have to go and look for some water.”
His travels in the Alps were by foot, and got him plenty of exercise, but they weren’t exactly mountain climbing.
“I did hike,” he said. “I’m not one of those spider climbers, but I went over 4,000 meters.”
“You can never tell if the rain is coming,” he said. “I remember a couple of times I did two or three paintings, and then the rain came.”
Over the decades his portrait work has included Dwight D. Eisenhower, and a seven-foot-high portrait of Pope Paul VI.
“This was three popes before this guy — which I like this guy, Francis,” Onyshkewych said. “This was a seven-foot portrait.
“A lot of cardinals,” he added. “After the pope, I had to do about six cardinals — everybody wanted to be in.”
He got tired of painting cardinals.
“I said, ‘I ran out of red paint.’ ”
A high prelate put one of his works in a frame of gray velvet and gold, which Onyshkewych didn’t like — so he complained.
“Last time I decided on a frame,” the churchman replied, “it was a Raphael twice this size.”
If he became a bit impatient, it may not be churchmen Onyshkewych tired of, but portraiture itself.
He tells a story of the late 19th and early 20th Century artist John Singer Sargent, who was considered the master portrait artist of the Edwardian era but toward the end of his life focused on landscapes and informal studies.
“When he switched, at the end,” Onyshkewych said of Sargent, “he said ‘Portraiture is a pimp’s profession.’
“He painted, at the end of his life, a lot of beautiful watercolors from Venice — which is not very easy to do,” Onyshkewych said.
Another late 19th Century artist that Onyshkewych admires is Frederick Church, who grew up in Hartford, painted grand and dramatic landscapes, and is considered a major figure in the Hudson River School of painting.
“You know his best painting? Niagara Falls,” Onyshkewych said. “I saw it. I said, ‘You son of a gun, you know how to paint.’ ”
Onyshkewych left the Ukraine in the aftermath of World War II. He was 15 when the war ended.
“The war moved us. My father couldn’t stay in Ukraine because my whole family was involved in fighting the communists after World War II,” he said.
His family came to U.S. in 1949, and he served in the Korean War. “I was with the Second Amphibious Support Brigade, Army,” he said.
As a Ukrainian, he was raised in the orthodox church, but he worked for many years teaching drawing at Fairfield University, a Roman Catholic institution run by Jesuits.
“I was an adjunct professor,” he said. “That gave me a chance to paint more — toward the end they paid me very well.”
He also studied art, of course, and among his teachers over the years were Reginald Marsh, known for his paintings of New York and its street scenes in the 1930s and ’40s and a prolific painter of trains and steam engines, and Robert Philipp, who lived from 1895 to 1981 and was called in “the last American Impressionist.”
Does he have a favorite subject to paint?
“Oh, mountains, the Alps,” he said. “this triangle of Mont Blanc, Mont Velan, and Le Massif des Combins.”
As a more traditional representational artist, Onyshkewych can sound impatient speaking of those who “hang condoms on the wall and say ‘this is art.’ ”
But he maintains a big-tent view of artistic creation.
“I don’t believe in one line of work,” he said. “I think an artist should be able to do anything.”