The portrait of Abraham Lincoln in Dan Christoffel's art studio shows the face of our 16th president in extreme close-up - his brow deeply lined, his eyes etched in sadness.
The larger-than-life study in acrylic paint captures the artist's vision of the president in personal crisis after the death of his young son Willie in 1862. The painting - one of dozens of Lincoln portraits completed by Christoffel during his almost 35-year crusade to show the many sides of the Great Emancipator - also reflects the mood of an artist in his Act2 years.
Christoffel was in his 50s when he completed "Upon the Death of Willie," in the early 1990s. At the time, the artist was also mourning the death of his brother at age 53.
"You get introspective" with age, Christoffel said on a recent afternoon, as the sun dipped toward the New York City skyline, visible across the water from his Sands Point home. "I realized I was getting close to the age when Lincoln was assassinated - he was 56. I wanted to say something about what he was going through."
Nine years after retiring from a 41-year career teaching art in the Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District, Christoffel, 72, is experiencing a resurgence in his second career as a painter and sculptor. Starting Feb. 1, his works are being featured at two prestigious Long Island galleries.
Forty of Christoffel's drawings, prints and paintings - including his series of Lincoln portraits and works inspired by the 1960s civil rights movement - will be on exhibit at C.W. Post's library. The exhibition (see box) is part of the campus' official commemoration of both Black History Month and Lincoln's 201st birthday.
In Oyster Bay, four sculptures by Christoffel will be part of an exhibit (see box) entitled "TR and His Horse: comrades in arms, friends in life," at the Theodore Roosevelt Association office, through the end of February.
The artist also has two 9/11 sculptures on permanent exhibit at Adelphi University in Garden City.
Christoffel has managed to meld a passion for history with a classically trained art background to become one of Long Island's most recognized historical artists.
"He is one of the most visible lifelong artists on Long Island," said Franklin Hill Perrell, an art historian who is the former longtime chief curator at the Nassau County Museum of Art. "I think very highly of his work."
Perrell, who currently is executive director of the Roslyn Landmark Society, commented, "Dan has the sophistication of somebody who is informed about advanced art and jazz, but . . . his paintings tell a story and are very accessible."
Christoffel grew up in Jamaica and Forest Hills, Queens. He studied at the Art Student's League of New York in Manhattan and was a disciple of Ilya Bolotowsky, a leading New York City abstract painter. Although Christoffel is a representational painter, the older artist offered him encouragement. "He was my mentor," Christoffel said.
The Lincoln project began as a bit of serendipity during the bicentennial celebration in 1976. Christoffel had found a stack of old frames on a roadside in upstate Utica. Because he felt Lincoln best represented the ideals of the Founding Fathers, he began filling canvases with images of Honest Abe to fit the discarded frames.
"This is the painting that started it all," Christoffel said, referring to a Lincoln portrait that will be part of the C.W. Post exhibit. To make the connection between Lincoln and the civil rights movement, he painted a newspaper photo of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on Lincoln's chest.
Christoffel also collects Lincoln memorabilia and books. To keep up with the latest Lincoln scholarship, Christoffel maintains a friendship with Harold Holzer, a historian who is co-chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. Holzer contacted the artist after seeing the painting in a 1970s newspaper article.
A charming and energetic man, Christoffel shares a restored carriage house with his wife, Jo-Anne. Over a repast of decaffeinated coffee, bagels and lox, his wife said Christoffel "has way too much energy for one person. He had triple bypass surgery a year ago in July, and they said he'd be better than new, and I said, 'Can't you slow him down a bit?' "
Christoffel's portraits of Lincoln command between $3,000 and $5,000 from private collectors, he said. There has been greater demand for them since the election of Barack Obama as the nation's first African-American president, he added.
"Obama helped me out a lot by making Lincoln resonate so," Christoffel explained.
But there is always time to paint. Christoffel's next project: a series on Walt Whitman, the acclaimed poet who was born in West Hills. He has already started sketching a Whitman portrait, emphasizing the poet's intense eyes.
Christoffel said, "What's most meaningful since I retired has been the ability to think single-mindedly about being an artist."
Two presidents, two shows
"Abraham Lincoln: The Great Emancipator and His Legacy," Monday to Feb. 12, at the Hutchins Gallery, B. Davis Schwartz Memorial Library, C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University. Hours are 2 to 5 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday. Free admission. Opening reception and artist talk on Thursday, 6 to 8 p.m. For more information, call the reference desk, 516-299-2305.
"TR and the Horse: comrades in arms, friends in life," the Theodore Roosevelt Association office, 20 Audrey Ave., Oyster Bay. Exhibit open weekdays during February, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., weekends by appointment. Admission is free. Call 516-921-6319, ext. 14, for more information.