Born in Minnesota on March 26, 1928, Richard Lack grew up in South
Minneapolis 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 Beaupre
Miller called My Bookhouse.
The stories and the pictures, many of them by prominent illustrators
of the period, made a deep impression on the boy, who had a natural
interest in fantasy. The seeds of many of Lack's later imaginative
paintings were planted in those early years through reading the
stories and studying the illustrations found in the "bookhouse" books.
Lack also 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. Later
he played for more than 10 years in the Minnetonka Symphony Orchestra,
a well-regarded community orchestra.
art career began when as a child he received a gift of watercolor
paints. As far back as he can remember he responded with great enthusiasm
to pictures he saw at school, his grandfather's house and at the
museum. Lack's talent was recognized
early by his teachers. He recalls his second grade teacher telling
him he would be an artist when he grew up. When he was 15, he was
given special permission to draw from life in classes held at the
Walker Art Center. About the same time he began painting watercolors
from nature. This early interest was a precursor to his life-long
love of landscape painting.
After graduation from high school, Lack
enrolled in the Minneapolis School of Art, where he studied for two
and one-half years on a partial scholarship. But his heart was set
on learning to paint in the tradition of the Old Masters, a knowledge
that none of his teachers could provide. He then traveled to New
York looking for an appropriate school, but could not find what he
yearned for. He started copying paintings at the Metropolitan Museum
of Art, where one day a young man stopped to talk to him. He was
from Boston and was studying with a man named R. H. Ives Gammell.
Gammell, he said, was running a small studio based on the European
atelier system of training painters and was accepting students as
apprentices. Excited by the prospect of at last finding a teacher "who
could lead him out of the wilderness," Lack left New York for Boston
and met Gammell. This initial meeting led to a teacher-pupil relationship
that was to last more than five years. Gammell had authored numerous
books and articles including Twilight of Painting, perhaps
the most important book to date on the loss of our Western painting
tradition. In Gammell, Lack found what he was so ardently seeking:
an artist who could not only teach the basic skills of picture making,
but who could also provide a living link to the great traditions
of the past.
The Korean war interrupted Lack's
studies for two years, but in 1953 he returned to Gammell's studio.
He completed his studies four years later, then traveled extensively
in Europe on a scholarship. Lack gathered first-hand knowledge
of the Masters by studying their paintings in Germany, France and
He married Hungarian-born Katherine
Vietorisz in 1955, and two years later they returned to Minneapolis.
They looked for property with the tranquillity of semi-country
living, and found a partially finished basement home with a good
north exposure in suburban Glen Lake, Minnesota. Here Lack, with
the help of his wife and friends, built a studio with lighting that
closely approximated that of the Old Masters. Even before the structure
was finished, he received a commission from the Kennedy family of
Hyannisport, Massachusetts, to paint several memorial portraits of
their deceased son Joseph Jr., thereby paying for the new addition.
the studio was completed, Lack started working on still life, landscapes,
interiors (using his family and friends for models) and more portrait
work. Being of a versatile nature he did not specialize in one form
of painting, but was interested in many genres. He was also an avid
investigator, experimenting with various painting mediums, varnishes
and ways of achieving artistic effects, including the use of artificial
light on his subjects, as in The Snow Queen, The Jack-O'-Lantern and Kuan
Lack also did watercolors and pastels. He often utilized his wife's
extensive gardens for his many floral still lifes which usually
sold right off the easel. Almost every spring he painted a resplendent
peony still life. A number of his still lifes are hanging in museum
collections throughout the United States. He practiced the challenging
art of etching as well. On early Minnesota winter evenings when
the light for painting failed, he created many fine prints.
1950's through the 1970's was a
period of great trial and tribulation for American representational
painters. Movements including Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art and
Conceptual Art held center stage and captured the imagination of
the art public, the press and the museum establishment. America
totally and uncritically embraced these new ideas without regard
to the consequences that they would have on the future of American
art. "Whatever lasting
contribution this post-war avant-garde explosion will have on future
art is anyone's guess," says Lack. "However, it did succeed in virtually
destroying the great traditions of Western painting and sculpture.
Perhaps we should have heeded Oscar Wilde's observation that 'the
only trouble with something new it that it gets old.'"
period proved to be a difficult one for Lack. Because of Modernism's
bias against traditional realism he was unable to exhibit in many
open shows. Since a young painter must build a
name for himself largely through exhibitions including group shows
and one-man shows, Lack organized his own exhibitions as often as
he could. Later, in life, Lack recounted how this rejection of his
work by the art establishment proved to be a blessing in disguise.
He would often say that the greatest virtue an artist can possess
is a rugged sense of independence. Nothing strengthens this virtue
more than rejection. As his reputation grew, however, opportunities
to exhibit outside of the artistic establishment presented themselves
and he exhibited his work widely throughout the United States, winning
Lack's three children, Susanna, Peter
and Michael were desirable if somewhat unwilling models for many
of his paintings. His love for music manifested itself in numerous
works like Scherzo, a simple and striking portrait of Susanna playing
the flute, and Trio, a complex work in which Lack utilized
all three of his children. The best known of his small musical interiors
is The Concert, a visual tour de force that masterfully integrates
the drawing of the 17th-century Dutch interior painters with the
visual impressionism of the Boston School. This remarkable work was
purchased by the Maryhill Museum in Goldendale, Washington, where
Lack had his first important one-person show in 1964.
guitar's beautiful shape has inspired
many of Lack's paintings with musical themes. One of the first
major figure paintings he completed in his newly built studio was The
Folksinger, a large, dramatic chiaroscuro interior of a young
man playing the guitar. Throughout his career, guitar players comprise
a significant portion of his many musical subjects, from intimate
interiors like Divertimento, painted in 1969, to monumental
life-sized figure pieces such as his 1984 painting, Young America.
fine landscape painter, Lack has painted throughout the Midwest,
often saying that a landscape painter who can paint the "Minnesota
spinach" well can paint anything. He also
took several trips to the Rocky Mountains, returning each time with
landscapes that captured the appearance of those majestic peaks in
fresh and hitherto unexplored ways, particularly in his use of impressionist
color. Another favorite landscape painting haunt was Minnesota's
North Shore of Lake Superior. Similar to Maine's rugged coastline,
it provided Lack with abundant subject matter close to home. His
landscapes unite authoritative draftsmanship and a strong sense of
form with richly pigmented surfaces and impressionist color truth.
He firmly believed that an artist must continually return to the
visible world to keep their eye true and their approach alive. Throughout
his career Lack has combined his landscape and figure painting
into a wide variety of delightful outdoor genre works of his family
and friends, culminating in such magnificent work as Summer Morning and The
In 1969 Lack was
asked by several of his colleagues to teach life drawing so they
could improve their skills. He complied, and from a weekly evening
class there quickly grew a demand for more instruction. Basing
his teaching methods on principles that he had learned under Gammell
and on the ateliers of the 17th, 18th, and 19th-century Europe,
he opened Atelier Lack, accepting a few serious students who wished
to pursue careers as painters. His initial efforts were supported
by the Elizabeth T. Greenshields Memorial Foundation of Montreal,
Canada, which gave him several grants during the first years of
the atelier's existence. The school was unique
at that time and soon gained a reputation as a small island of traditional
art training surrounded a by a sea of hostile opinion. However, despite
opposition, it attracted many students from the United States, Canada
and Europe. In addition to the full-time program, Atelier Lack offered
evening classes in painting and drawing to both professionals and
avocationalists. Lack retired in 1992, and Atelier Lack has become
a model for other studios around the United States and Italy. Over
the years, Lack's teaching produced many fine painters, Stephen
Gjertson and Kirk Richards among them.
Lack's sound training, his experience
with diverse painting methods and the fact that he had mastered so
many genres of painting made him a uniquely qualified teacher. His
philosophy of training students is outlined in the booklet "On the
Training of Painters with Notes on the Atelier Program," which
he wrote in 1967. In an art world totally divorced from the study
of nature and the older traditions, the emerging interest on the
part of young people in the art of the Masters along with increasing
requests for the teaching of the older methods gave Lack and his
fellow artists a much needed lift. Whether recognized by the contemporary
art world or not, these artists knew the expressive potential of
the great tradition to which they were dedicated was not yet exhausted.
with starting the atelier, Lack felt that the time had arrived to
concentrate on what he had always seen as the ultimate goal for
a classical painter: pictures that spring form the artist's imagination.
Painting from nature for over 15 years gave him a solid foundation
on which to build, so he began to work on several paintings that "were
always in my head."
These imaginative pictures require many figure studies from life
as well as a good working knowledge of all phases of painting,
especially the use of glazing. Since most of the knowledge available
to the Old Masters is lost, Lack, starting with the seminal work
done by his teacher Gammell, had to reconstruct from books and
the intensive study of paintings (and sometimes by guess and experiment)
the methods used in painting these pictures. He spend many years
studying his favorite master, Rubens, whose pictures are among
the best preserved and most luminous of the Old Masters.
of Lack's study and labor
may be seen in his great imaginative works: Perseus and Andromeda, Medea, The
Mandala, Metamorphosis of the Gods, The Nativity (using
his son Michael for the angels and daughter Susanna for the figure
of Mary), Golden Apples of the Sun, Silver Apples of the
inspired by a Yeats poem (with Susanna modeling for the Trickster), War, Shadowdance and
his apocalyptic triptych. He is currently working on a series of
nine large panels using life-sized figures symbolically depicting
journey toward individuation and psychological wholeness.
the mid-1980's one of Lack's students
suggested starting a small periodical written by professional artists
to educate and inform the public about traditional realism. Lack
had long recognized the need for such a publication, so Atelier Lack
began publishing the Classical Realism Quarterly.
The phrase "Classical
Realism" had been coined by Lack to differentiate his art from
the many kinds of realism in vogue in the art world of the day.
He contributed numerous essays to the Quarterly including "The
and "The Bistre Method," both drawn from his studies of the
old techniques. At the urging of Donald Koestner, he began using
a landscape palette based on that of the French and American impressionists.
After further research and experimentation he modified this palette
and summed up his results in an article entitled "The Outdoor Palette."
is one of the finest living portrait painters. Throughout his career
he has painted portraits of prominent Minnesotans, including Ray
Mithun, founder and CEO of Campbell-Mithun, a worldwide advertising
company; physicians Lyle French and Richard Ebert, heads of department
at University of Minnesota Hospital; Karl Auerback, head of the University
Law School; and many others in the fields of business, education
and religion. His portraits of Minnesota governors Wendell Anderson
and Albert Quie hang in the Minnesota State Capitol.
has also painted a great number of private portrait commissions,
but over the years some of his most poignant and charming portraiture
has been the personal chronicle he has rendered of his wife and family,
beginning with the superb Rubens-like image of his wife, Katherine.
Years later, he painted a stunning full-length portrait of his teen-aged
daughter attired in the same green velvet. Portrait of My Mother is
a lovingly rendered depiction of his mother dressed in hat, coat
and scarf. He has painted many intimate head studies of his children
at various ages including Michael, a portrait of his son.
the fall of 1989 Lack received a phone call from London, England.
The future Earl of Wilmot wanted him to paint a portrait of his young
wife. Mr. Wilmot, as it turned out, had searched throughout England
and Western Europe for a painter who could do the job to his liking.
Unsatisfied by the work of the artists that he found, he inquired
at London's National Portrait Gallery
about painters working in the United States. He was referred to two
American museums, both of which independently recommended Richard
Lack. Having accepted the commission, the Lacks traveled to Europe
in the spring of 1990. There they spent two months in the Wilmot's
London flat, where Lack painted a beautiful three-quarter-length
portrait of Diana Wilmot.
to Lack, "This is not a common
sense country in terms of art. People won't express their own opinions
because they are afraid of ridicule. They ignore their own taste
and instead accept the second-hand opinions of critics. What an
artist wants from the public is genuine interest, even if that
interest is disapproval. I would rather hear the honest opinion
of a person who has no grounding in art than that of a false connoisseur
who merely repeats the fashionable opinions of the day."
expressed his philosophy of art in a catalog for a one-man show
at Brigham Young University in Utah:
"In my own art I have attempted to achieve a solid anchor in the
visible world and at the same time to create beauty from my personal
experience. In an age of specialization it is my belief that the
individual, especially the artist, should try for broad and universal
goals. Both by temperament and interest I have explored a variety
of subject matter ranging from landscape and still life to portrait
and figure compositions. I wish to the best of my ability to create
an art based on my experience of nature: an art that expresses
a personal sense of beauty; an art that embodies craft of the highest
order; an art that uses subjects both from the contemporary world
and from the world of imagination."
French painter Jean-Léon
Gérôme wrote: "It is austere and profound studies that
make great painters and great sculptors; one lives all one's life
on that foundation and if it is lacking one will only be mediocre."
Throughout his life Lack has tried to adhere to these words and has
endeavored to instill their meaning in his students. Observing the
tragic loss in our century of the established methods and specialized
knowledge of the Masters, he felt the weight of being one of the
few painters to persevere in carrying on these traditions. In his
essays and articles he repeatedly affirms today's need for learning
to appreciate the beauty and skill found in the masterpieces of the
past, and for excellent and rigorous training of talented art students
who wish to acquire the skills necessary to paint fine pictures
and to carry this knowledge into the future. There will always
be people who hunger for an art that is capable of lifting them
out of the chaos of ordinary human experience, leading them to
a more profound vision of life.
Biography source: Beauty: A Rebirth Of Relevance.
Edited by Rebecca H. Anderson.
Copyright © 1995 The American
Society of Classical Realism.