Two years ago, when artist Mort Künstler announced his decision to retire from creating major works, many who know the painter — recognized for his Civil War depictions — predicted he might have a change of heart.
He said he intended to stay busy with more modest-sized art projects that would be sufficiently fulfilling, but it was no surprise to fans of the 89-year-old artist from Cove Neck to learn that he’s now working on at least one more large-scale oil painting.
Künstler said he was drawn out of retirement by a commission he found irresistible because of its subject. Art collector Gary Pasquaretto of Muttontown asked the artist to create a large painting of baseball as it would have been played during the Civil War. Künstler decided to do a 26-by-48-inch image, showing Union soldiers playing baseball on the White House lawn.
Pasquaretto, 56, who works in real estate management, said he owns a few original paintings, none historical in nature. However, “Being able to work with Mort . . . made it very exciting for me,” he said. Both artist and patron declined to disclose the price of the commission, but Künstler’s original oils of the same size start at about $50,000.
“Like a lot of kids on Long Island,” Pasquaretto said, “I played Little League baseball until I was about 15 years old.” He’s been a Mets fan since before the team’s 1969 World Series win, he said. His vision for the painting — baseball, played in wartime — stems from his belief that “people still try to maintain a sense of normalcy in their lives,” even in the worst of times.
For Künstler, the theme spoke to his love of painting the Civil War period with the inclusion of sports. His interest in sports has a long history. He played in pickup baseball games while growing up in Brooklyn. Künstler, who started drawing before age 3, said his uncle knew some of the Brooklyn Dodgers and would take him to Ebbets Field. As a budding artist, he painted portraits of team members from 1940 to 1942 that were autographed by the players.
“I think that sports helped me throughout my whole life,” Künstler said. “It got me into schools that I couldn’t get into.” He attended Brooklyn College for a short time and then moved to UCLA on a basketball scholarship. He returned to New York because his father had a heart attack and, through basketball, eventually was admitted to Pratt Institute to study art and take part in sports.
“I went from football in the fall to basketball in the winter and track in the spring,” Künstler said. He was a regional track star in hurdles and javelin, and was also a diver on the swim team. “I was the first four-letter man in Brooklyn College history,” he said. Künstler said he had aspirations for a professional basketball career but abandoned the idea because he was prone to injury.
“But I love baseball,” he said. “I’m sorry I didn’t play it, other than in pickup games.” He has no particular favorite, he said, “but it’s sort of fun to see the New York teams win.”
When Pasquaretto commissioned the painting, Künstler envisioned a Confederate prison camp with Union captives playing their Rebel guards. But as he began the intensive research he always does before any painting, he discovered a book titled “Baseball in Blue and Gray,” which described soldiers encamped in Washington, playing at the White House.
“I love to do paintings where there is a building that still exists and is recognizable in the background,” Künstler said. And while one of his paintings shows Abraham Lincoln inside the White House, Künstler never illustrated the exterior of the landmark structure in any of his previous 4,000 works.
For the baseball painting, Künstler’s research included the first known photograph of the White House, taken in 1846. The baseball field is Künstler’s artistic interpretation, and it’s taking shape in his studio on the third floor of his home. “The rules were different then; no one really knows exactly,” he said. “They may have pitched on a bounce. The books I researched said they used stakes 4 feet high originally in the 1830s as bases before they developed into real bases. I’m going to have folded-up newspaper with a brick on it to keep it in place as the base. The pitcher is only 45 feet away from the batter, not 60 feet, the way it is today. I’m going to have an upside-down plate for home plate because I believe that’s the way it was, but no one really knows. Early indications are that the umpire would have been behind the pitcher rather than the catcher because they didn’t have any masks or protection.”
During his semiretirement, after a six-decade career that made him one of America’s foremost painters of historical scenes, Künstler has kept up a schedule of personal appearances and has been working with an artists supply company to develop a line of paints and instructional videos. While he stopped doing large oils because he said it was taking longer and longer to paint them as he aged, the artist did revisit four earlier paintings he did on whaling for the covers of magazines in the 1950s, and improved them.
“That’s been keeping me very busy,” Künstler said, “but Gary came along with an idea for the Civil War painting and said it would be my Mona Lisa. I said ‘Oh my, what a great opportunity!’ I just sort of lit up.”
When Künstler announced he was coming out of retirement for this special painting, Künstler’s wife, Deborah, took the news in stride. “I’m not surprised that he went back to painting because painting has always been his life and he really loves it,” she said.
While he works on the new painting, Künstler is also preparing for two local exhibitions. The Cold Spring Harbor Whaling Museum will be displaying his revised whaling paintings from now through the end of next September. On Dec. 10, The Heckscher Museum of Art in Huntington will open two exhibits that run until spring. One will be from Künstler’s personal collection of works by Norman Rockwell and other artists. The other will be of his paintings of the American Revolution.
Midway through the baseball painting, Künstler said his un-retirement will probably be limited to this one artwork.
“Frankly, I think this is going to take enough out of me that I won’t want to do another one,” he said. “There’s so much work involved. It’s getting to be like work. And that’s a scary thing for me because I’ve said I’ve made a very nice living but never worked a day in my life.”