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Artist Mort Künstler working on his final piece

Cove Neck artist Mort Künstler has decided to pack up his brushes after a six-decade career that made him America's foremost painter of historical scenes. He says the image now now on his easel - a Civil War scene of the Civil War will be his last. In his studio on Dec. 23, 2014, he explained why he thinks it is time to quit. (Credit: Newsday / Audrey C. Tiernan)

Cove Neck artist Mort Künstler has decided to pack up his brushes after a six-decade career painting historical scenes.

Künstler said the image now on his easel — a scene set during the Civil War, the subject of many of his paintings in recent years — would be his last.

"The reason I want to stop is because it's starting to feel like work," Künstler said. "I am 87 years old and have been painting for the last 60 to 65 years professionally. I used to take a paintbrush, dip it in the paint and it was almost like handwriting. Today it's taking much longer, which takes a lot of the joy out of it."

He added that "I would like to quit at a high note. I've seen artists whose work in the last five or 10 years of their careers was just terrible, and I don't want that to happen to me."

 

A tough void to fill

"His decision to hang up those expressive brushes will inevitably leave a huge void in our visual memory and reduce our future opportunities to visualize history," Civil War art historian Harold Holzer of New York City said. "Happily, Mort leaves a huge and compelling archive for us and future generations to enjoy and learn from."

Künstler plans to continue marketing his existing works and attend signings around the country — "a job unto itself." He is also negotiating with a manufacturer about creating a line of custom paints, artists' tools and a video series on techniques.

His final work is titled "LaGrange vs. LaGrange."

Künstler said "it's based on an actual event that takes place about a week after the Civil War ends in LaGrange, Georgia. The word hasn't gotten down there yet that the war is over. The town of LaGrange has been depleted of its male population because all the men have gone off to war and the women decided to form a militia and learn how to fire guns to protect themselves. A regiment of Union calvary comes riding into town and they are confronted by the women in the militia with their guns."

In a strange coincidence, the Union commander was named Col. Oscar LaGrange. Troup County Historian Clark Johnson said the colonel told the women that if they put down their guns he would spare their houses. So the women provided dinner that night.

"It's a nice story and a celebration of the end of the war," Künstler says. "It was a lot of fun doing this picture. I think it will be nice to end my Civil War paintings on a happy note rather than some of the tragedies I have portrayed in the past."

Künstler will be in LaGrange to unveil the painting April 17, the sesquicentennial — or 150-year anniversary — of the event. "It's a distinct honor for us for someone of his caliber to make us his swan song," Johnson said. "It's also a very fitting memorial for the women and their bravery."

The painter said the LaGrange scene makes an appropriate follow-up to "Respect of an Army," his recently completed image of Gen. Robert E. Lee after surrendering his army at the Appomattox Court House. That painting will be unveiled at the Heckscher Museum of Art in Huntington on the 150th anniversary of the surrender on April 9.

 

Unveiling a special occasion

Heckscher executive director Michael W. Schantz said he was thrilled to host the unveiling. "He's awfully popular and has a legion of followers," he said. "He lives just a few miles from the museum, but we have never featured him in any way before, so this is a nice step towards rectifying that omission." That artwork is currently on display in Massachusetts at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, which is offering a retrospective of Künstler's career through March 8.

Künstler started painting professionally in the early 1950s. "The first work I got was doing book jackets for publishers and later covers for men's adventure magazines," he recalled. "That led to an advertising career, where I was doing a lot of movie posters." He then started doing historical scenes for National Geographic and other magazines, and in 1977 began doing paintings for sale by galleries.

A 1982 commission from CBS to do artwork for the miniseries, "The Blue and The Gray," began his association with the Civil War. But he also painted a 1992 U.S. postage stamp depicting the Buffalo Soldiers and last year did a series of Revolutionary War images, including two showing Robert Townsend and his sister Sally at Raynham Hall in Oyster Bay.

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