Thursday, September 20, 2007



Morton Roberts (1927-1964) was a serious painter, a child prodigy who graduated from the fine arts program at Yale University and launched a career as an illustrator for magazines such as Collier's, Redbook and McCall's in the 1950s and early 60s.

A frenzied peasant dance becomes an abstract design

He was one of a small group of gifted illustrators selected to illustrate historical series for Life magazine. While still a young man, he won respect for this series on Russian history:

Lenin greets the troops

Arpi Ermoyan wrote about this painting,
Roberts' composition is so well conceived that although the main character of the story, Lenin, is off to the left side of the picture, the eye is immediately drawn to him by the strategically placed red flag. The horizontal line formed by the tops of the soldiers heads also leads the eye directly to him.
This is clearly an artist who knew what he was doing.

Roberts also painted a series for Life on jazz and a series on opera.

Scene from a Chicago jazz club

New Orleans jazz

Detail from series on Rigoletto

Then, as quickly as his career began, it was over. In his mid 30s, Roberts died unexpectedly of a heart attack. He had spent his short time well, and left behind a small but beautiful legacy of work. But who knows what he might have accomplished with another thirty or forty years to paint?

None of us has a guarantee that we will live long enough to realize our artistic ambitions. We should remember the lesson of Morton Roberts as we evaluate each day's work.


Anonymous said...

Hmmm... very interesting. Sort of in there with McGinness, Avati and Douglas Crockwell...

I actually thought I was looking at one of those guys at first. I often find myself puzzled when a child prodigy turns out to be without a recognizable style. I think Picasso or Frazetta when I think prodigy. Maybe Roberts' impetus to excel came from a different place?

Though, maybe he was starting to push the envelope with the Jazz and Opera stuff. Interesting to speculate where the late 1960s would have taken him. Maybe freed to develop a more personal style. Or maybe chased him to portraiture or national geographic.

Anyhow, thanks again! I can't believe how many illustrators I don't know!


Anonymous said...

The guy could definitely paint. That painting of Lenin addressing the troops is quite stunning, was that for a book or a magazine?

David Apatoff said...

Kev, I find it ironic that shortly after Roberts died, Life Magazine and classical illustratrion died too. If Roberts had lived longer, he might have found himself out of work and suffering the same indignities that many of his fellow illustrators experienced as they tried to cope with a disappearing market.

It is sad that he died before living up to his potential, but it spared him the hard times that other illustrators for Life Magazine (such as Stanley Meltzoff, who lived to be 89) went through.

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous, the entire Russian series (including the Lenin picture) appeared in one issue of Life Magazine (a 25 cent weekly publication). At the end of the week, it was swept off the news stand and out of the public eye forever. That's one reason for this blog.

Anonymous said...

The rise of the photograph is one thing that killed the market for these artists, it is rather ironic that many used photo reference for much of their work. Much graphic design for book covers these days seems to emphasize fonts and placement of text with photos instead of drawings or paintings. Classic novels tend to use old master or salon style paintings instead of original work on their covers. It's a real shame but I'm assuming it's cheaper, which is why the publishers go that route. I don't even find any childrens book illustrator's I like anymore. No William Steigs, Maurice Sendaks, or Leo Lionnis seem to be coming out of the woodwork. Thanks for the info on Roberts.

Jack R said...

David, your comment about children's illustrators rang a bell with me. Having young children of my own means I see a lot of contemporary children's illustration and I am always comparing it to the classics. One of of the things that rankles me is when I see illustrators who clearly are doing work to impress adults (and themselves) rather than appeal to children. They labor at showing off their technical virtuosity (e.g., excessive detail, tricky compositions), often losing their primary audience in the process. You see a similar tendency in 'family' movies.

Anonymous said...

I have a Roberts painting dated 1949. Subject is a "Wharf". Purchased in Cape may, NJ in 1996. Doing research on it now. Any suggestions?

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous, there is not much market data on Roberts because his life was so short and his output so limited. I know that some members of his family have his work, and that his opera paintings are much sought after and are largely in institutional collections. But my starting point for anything dealing with the buying or selling of work of illustrators is Illustration House gallery in NY. You might give them a try.

Anonymous said...

My name is Keith Bluestein. My late mother was Morton Robert's only sister. Recently Morton's work was celebrated at New York's Lincoln Jazz Center and is on display. The painting celebrates New Orleans in a unique manner and was illustrated and on the cover for Life Magazine in the 50's! My family owns many of early works. One in particular is an oil called, "The Banana," presented by boasting parents to some relatives in Massachusetts when Morton was only five years old! Thank you Mr. Apatoff for displaying his work as he is becoming more and more recognized as one of the greats!

Anonymous said...

I was a painting/illustration student at Pratt in1952 when Morton was teaching figure art in the Ad Design school. A friend of mine.said " ya gotta meet this Roberts guy he's a great artist and right up your alley!" Thus began a very close, and long relationship with Morty 'til the week of his death. Morton never learned to drive so I did all the driving where ever we would go. The wednesday evening of that fateful week I met him at the National Academy of Art where he was a teaching a academician ( the youngest to ever be admitted until then) we drove over to Reuben's for a nosh. His conversation was very different that night, mostly he spoke of not illustrating any longer and just do his paintings. He wanted to learn to live off his fine arts alone.I knew he was serious because as we were about to leave the restaurant he asked if I could pay my own tab? Morty had alway paid 'til that night so this was quite a departure. We then drove to his home in Harrison, he made up my bed on the couch, I was really tired so I climbed right in. He continued to talk of all that was on his mind including JFK's asasination, his invitation to be on The David Suskin show and being asked to design sets for the new Broadway show Saratoga written by Herman Wouk that was in preparations. I was trying to stay awake but was starting to drift off and I told him so. His response was the last thing I ever heard him say as he continued pacing back and forth going over his new plans and ideas. "That's O.K. I'll talk 'til you fall asleep,he said, but don't wake me in the morning. I'll call you in the next week or so as to when Jonathan (Winters) and I will be taking the (Gen.) MacArthur finished sketches to the new memorial in Norfolk Virginia. Then we'll make plans to stop off at the( RCA) Space Center in Princeton { where I was on staff as an artist) and Johnny will come in as a gag wildly looking for you!' Morty passed away that Sunday but his inspiration remains with me and so many others 'til this day. Sal Asaro

David Apatoff said...

Keith, if you have pictures of your uncle's unpublished art that you feel like sharing, I would love to see it.

Sal, thank you so much for writing with a very poignant story about Roberts' final hours. I found it fascinating, and I am very grateful to you for sharing.

Anonymous said...

It is indeed nice to see everyone's comments about my father and his art. And good to see your comments on this website, Keith.

I remember many of the paintings around the house and my family is still in possession of some of them, including the picture of Lenin greeting his troops at the train station.

A friend and art dealer here in Hong Kong where I live is asking about them.

It was good to hear Sal's description of Morton's last week. I remember his getting up in the morning complaining of chest pain and then being carried away on a stretcher. The doctors told me and my two brothers that it was just indigestion, but while sitting in the waiting room and hearing my mother so upset, we knew that the doctors had kept something from us.

Allan Roberts Hunnicutt

Anonymous said...

I like Morton Robets drawings since I look on Life Magazine # 50, 1958. I was a student in Leningrad when get it from American tourist. Then I ask my friends to re-paint his paintins. So now I have the copy of one the canvas "Oh he didnt ramble". Another scene in saloon was also copied but I have not it as one of my fellow take it once and never return back. So I kept this canvas at home and all of my relatives like it. As I am the jazz fan I enjoy it very much.
Suppose I am single person in Russia who know who is Morton Roberts.
Alexander Z.

Anonymous said...

I was 13 years old in 1961
and was mesmerized by the brilliant Morton Roberts "Christmas
through the centuries" paintings.
particularly the 1961 New England
scene. I immediatley made a painting from it. Then another
a few years later, which my mother still has. I think Roberts rates
with the very best in history.
As a draughtsmen with a rare sense for drama, he is unsurppassed.
I rate him with Sargent and Homer
in this regard. His compositional sense, and ability to take on and convey complex scenes, is also
Tom Briggs, Antweren, Belgium

barry klugerman said...

Hi, My friend Abe Echevarria and myself wrote an article on Morton for the Spring 2008 issue of Illustration Magazine. It's 22 pages in length with over 20 color plates. Those interested in Morton can check it out. Barry Klugerman

Unknown said...

I hope everyone is doing well. It has been awhile since I've checked and posted.
I am amazed at some of the comments and look forward to seeing more.
I miss my cousin Alan and bid you well in Hong Kong dear cousin and it was wonderful to see Michael at the night, "A Perfect Death" was donated to the Lincoln Jazz Center. Many friends and relatives I've never met attended!
I am dismayed that my uncles works appear to be unrecognized in terms of their monetary value. Not being a an art marketeer I am unclear in this regard.
Can anyone clarify this for me? I am not biased but his works are incredible.
Looking at Rockwell art at the Jazz center and then my uncle's piece, I am mesmerized by this particular piece. You almost fall in to the painting. Any clarification would be most appreciated! Regards to all of you that supported my late uncle. He was adorned by his sister, my late mother and his mom, my nana...
He was much loved and highly respected.

Unknown said...

trying to locate morton roberts art - new orleans marching band in Time-Life booklet of 1962. Help please.

Anonymous said...

We just brought "At the Prizefight" to get framed today and thought we would see what else is out there - found this blog. What a great painting. Can't wait to have it hanging in the house.

Unknown said...

Man, I love that picture? Where did you acquire it? cheers!

Anonymous said...

My father-in-law purchased it in the 90's at an Illustration House auction. He was a painter and an illustrator and he had a small put impressive collection of other illustrators works hung in his studio. He did'nt seem to care about the framing on these great pieces however, so that is bring left to us. The Prize fight is now hanging in our livingroom where we can admire it. It loves it new frame!

Unknown said...

AWESOME, I did love that painting.

I was thinking of making a giclee of some of my uncle works that were inherited.
However, I am still not clear if this is acceptable from a fine arts perspective. Any comments would be greatly appreciated.


I had the pleasure of being
best friends with Morton's son Allan, and his twin brothers.
Mike and Keith, growing up in
Harrison in the 60's. I remember
the "Jonathon Winters days" and all the excitement that surrounded the "McArthur project." My dad who
was a well known art collector himself, always recognized Morton's brilliance, and was proud to be included in Morton's inner circle.I will always remember Morton as a HUGE,towering figure, always with a smile, almost always in his studio, and of course, with the radio on during the many dinners I was privledged to share with Morton,Jean, Allan, Michael and Keith. While it is great to see that Morton's work is still much appreciated, my gratification comes from owning two items that Morton gave to my father, Herbert Schimmel. One was a charcoal portrait of my dad, which almost 50 years later still gives me the chills with its accuracy, beauty & simplicity. Morton did a number of these portraits for his close friends, and my dad's proudly hung in our house, among the original works of Toulouse Lautrec, ( which is what HE collected), until his passing in 2007. The other is a huge, fabulous painting from the movie "The Cardinal", I believe, which my mother still has in her possession.
Allan, I hope you and the family are well, and I thank everyone on this site for the wonderful memories and appreciation of
a truly SUPERIOR and under-appreciated artist. Just 37 years old in 1964, he was too young to leave us when he did.

God bless and aloha!

Kurt F. Schimmel: Princeton, NJ.

airandlight said...

David Apatoff's comment about Roberts just missing the end of magazine illustration missed the fact that Roberts was working on and had completed about 1/3 of the drawings for the Douglas MacArthur Memorial murals in Norfolk, VA. So Roberts was already moving into new areas. He would have had little difficulty, in my opinion, in adapting to whatever the new market would be. He actually stated that he was intending to spend more time executing fine art. He was well qualified as can be seen from his extraordinary abstract compositions and paintings that had gone on world tours.

Having known him, briefly, it is difficult to believe he would have descended into obscurity.

silogram said...

I recently purchased a monumental painting by Morton Roberts. I have stumbled upon this chat room while trying to research this painting. It is rather large approx. 8 ft by 5 ft. It is signed and dated 1962. It is an incredible image of approx 20 men pulling a boat onto shore. There are mountains in the background. I am not so sure how to send pictures through this sight. If you would like to contact me via my email, I will be happy to send images. Thanks Cory Margolis

cory said...

Hi I recently purchased a monumental painting by Morton Roberts. It measures approx 8 feet wide by 5 feet high. It is signed and dated 1962. The subject is 20 men pulling a boat to shore. There are mountains in the background. It is incredibly well painted. I am trying to research the history of this painting and stumbled upon this chat room. If anyone would be kind enough to email me at I will gladly send photos. It is really worth seeing. Looking forward to hearing back. Thanks Cory

Anonymous said...

I believe, like so many others, that had he lived, he would have been known as one of our greatest artists and I feel privileged to have once been the caretaker of the "Jazz Age." My family used to own this painting, but sold it in the early 1980's. I have always loved that painting, and whenever I see a photo of it, it brings fond memories of my parents, who both passed away recently. Do you know where this painting is? Has it come up for sale or auction recently? I would love the opportunity to see it again. Anyway, thank you for your help.

keith roberts hunnicutt said...

keith roberts hunnicutt thankyou for the beautiful comments regarding my father morton,from all including sal asaro,my cousin keith of course whom i have yet to meet and hopefully will,childhood friend kurt schimmel who i hope to contact we still have a photo of you with ourselves with jack dempsey at his resturant,and rember playing with johnathan winters family at his home and dinners at our home,thanks to david of course,our longest family friend abe ecevehria and sheila who have been with us all the way is the authority on morton and his career amongst others,one thing i was not aware of was that the painting cory has still exists i was informed it was destoyed in a fire at the resturant in nyc ,it was my favorite along with the jazz painting of a beautiful death,i still remember abe ,johnny carson ,jonathan winters ,his family, kurt schimmel,many other great people at our home abe s brother bill also a student of morton i wish i could rember sal and my cousin keith with my hazy memory i do remember my father and some models who we looked at through a key hole as morton painted tried to stuff the key hole with tissue paper which we, my brothers ,could pop out with a safety pin,thankfully,and my fathers painting style his brandy,cigar and friends at home enloying life going to risolis resturant and to the city ,he really enjoyed life he was bigger than life and loved his friends students and family,hope to contact some old friends and family soon . keith

Unknown said...

Keith this is cousin Keith.... Please call me or email me so we can finally reconnect!

Anonymous said...

Here we are nine years later. I would like to inform all those who love Morton's work to get the next issue of Illustration magazine. Dan Zimmer is publishing my article on Morton's brief life at Yale. An artist we will never forget.

Bibi Bushell said...

Hello, Abe,
I fondly remember when you borrowed our Morton Roberts collection for an exhibit-- How time flies. Wonder if you are still in CT? Of all of our art, we love Morton's the most. Rigoletto sketch is my favorite. But "Cowboys at the Bar" and the "Agora" really highlight his extraordinary talent. I am ordering back issues from Illustration Press. I try to collect all that I can find on Morton--he is so special.
Bibi Bushell