Photo of Richard Lack

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.

Lack's 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 Italy.

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.

After 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 Yin. 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.

The 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.'"

This 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 many awards.

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.

The 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.

A 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 Flower Seller.

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.

Concurrent 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.

The result 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 Moon, 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 man's journey toward individuation and psychological wholeness.

In 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 Venetian Method" 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."

Lack 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.

He 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.

In 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.

According 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."

Lack 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."

The 19th-century 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.