Ned Jacob, noted artist and lecturer, is well acquainted with the work of Winold Reiss. He has been a close friend of the Reiss family for nearly three decades.

Detail of a photograph
by Nickolas Muray


Winold Reiss (1886-1953)

He Was an Artist...
An Appreciation by Ned Jacob

The poised and well-tailored young man with the shock of thick, dark hair and the piercing blue eyes stood on the pier, anxiously awaiting his baggage. As he drank in the magnificent view across the river—the skyline of New York—he could not then have possibly imagined the rich and kaleidoscopic career that was to be his here in America—this land of new beginnings, this fertile land of infinite possibilities.

He was an artist, 27 years old, and his name was Winold Reiss. He was well equipped for this, his life's great adventure. Well schooled in the disciplines and practice of his craft in Munich, possessed of a soaring and irrepressible zest for life, and armed with boundless confidence in his own abilities, he was eager to make his way in this new land.

Perhaps his greatest asset was his gift of the common touch. He seemed blessed with a personal magnetism and guileless manner that put people at their ease in his presence. Always sure of himself but never pompous, he treated all he met with equal respect, whether Mexican campesinos, art students, or captains of industry. His conduct wherever he went was instinctively correct and appropriate, with no need to consult a book of etiquette. The rich racial tapestry of America was ever a joy to him, and his many brilliant portraits rendered with obvious admiration and without condescension or flattery attest to his affection for the entire human family.

Reiss proclaimed himself a modernist, and in the truest sense he was—with one foot firmly planted in the great European tradition and the other always thrust forward, testing, questioning, experimenting. He was never confined by Modernism as a category or as a cliché but lived it as a working philosophy. His was a philosophy that breathed freshness and vigor into all of his many endeavors as a creative spirit.

In reviewing Reiss's prodigious contributions as teacher, graphic designer, interior architect, and muralist, as well as his portfolio of brilliant ethnic portraits, one is struck by the extraordinary power and originality of the work. In his draftsmanship we are reminded of Holbein, Menzel, and Leibel, but with the Reiss personality always in evidence: his daring, assertive color, never out of chromatic harmony; his subject boldly commanding the format; his medium the servant of the master, the labor of its execution never obvious.

We can but wonder what this bold, creative soul would have done in the present age of computers and advanced communication. Would he have designed greater and more complex works on his computer? Would he have employed modern modes of transportation to paint the distant races of the earth? Perhaps he would have become a giant in the area of broadcast media. Of one thing we may be sure—he would have made his creative voice heard over the babble and din of vulgar mediocrity, and that voice as ever would have rung with clarity, originality, and the unmistakable style of its author, Winold Reiss.

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