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Gustavo Cenci

Gustavo Othello Cenci was born on January 27, 1897 in Terni, Umbria, Italy. Gus was the youngest surviving child of Agostino Cenci and Alessandra Formiconi Cenci.

Nothing is known at this time about Gus’ life before immigrating to the United States. Gus, his mother, sister Clelia, and older brother Elio, sailed as steerage passengers from the Port of Naples, Italy on June 9, 1905, aboard the S.S. Sicilian Prince, and arrived at Ellis Island on June 27, 1905. From Ellis Island, the family traveled, most likely by train, to Trenton, New Jersey, to meet Agostino, and two of Gus’ brothers, Dante and Terzo, who had previously immigrated in 1901 and 1903, respectively. Upon arriving in Trenton, the family lived at 209 Elmer Street, in the Chambersburg section of Trenton. This was, and still is, an enclave for Italian-Americans.

From Trenton City Directories of 1907 and 1909, we know that Gus’ parents, Agostino and Alessandra, were potters, working in the thriving ceramics and pottery industry that the city housed. Trenton was the main supplier of ceramics and pottery to the entire country.

The Cenci family moved north to New York City in April 1912.


Beginning on October 14, 1913, when Gus was living at 170 East 108th Street, New York City, through 1920, Gus was a student at the National Academy of Design. Here he studied various painting techniques, and garnered several prizes, including the 1918 Hallgarten Prize for Painting ($15), the 1919 Cannon Prize for Painting from the Nude ($100), the Mr. C.C. Casper Scholarship, the 1919 Hallgarten Prize for Painting Class ($50), and the 1920 Hallgarten Prize for Painting ($50).

According to the 1915 New York City Directory, Gus was living with his father “Augustus,” a chef, at 1976 Lexington Avenue. Gus is listed in this directory as “artist.”

Because a single sheet of letterhead survives today, we know that in 1916, Gus and his brother Elio, formed the Cenci Art School, where fine and commercial arts were taught. It is unknown where the business was first housed, but the brothers set up shop in Toms River, New Jersey, sometime in the 1940s.

According to Gus’s World War One Draft Registration Card dated June 5, 1918, Gus was living at 1976 Lexington Avenue, NY, NY, and was employed by Western Electric, NY, NY. From Gus’ citizenship papers that were filed in 1940, it was learned that Gus was drafted into service for the United States in World War One. His draft board was number 166 in Manhattan (source: World War One Draft Registration Cards 1917-1918, NARA, Roll 1786969). He served in the United States Army Infantry from September 9, 1918 (Serial Number 4883247) and was honorably discharged on September 14, 1918, having been separated at Camp Gordon, Georgia. Why Gus had a 5-day Army career is unknown.

According to the 1920 U.S. federal census, Gus, age 23, was living at 308 East 16th Street, and was an artist working at a school.

Considered a highlight of Gus’s early career was his affiliation with the renowned American etcher, illustrator and historian, Bernhardt Wall. Wall first studied at the Buffalo Art Students League before going to New York to study under Henry Reuterdahl and apprentice in etching under William Auerbach-Levy. He began his career as a lithographic illustrator in 1889 and then served with the 202nd NY Volunteers during the Spanish-American War. From 1902 to 1913 Wall worked mainly as a commercial artist in both New York and Buffalo. Wall regularly bound and published his own etchings and occasionally included those of his contemporaries. Gus’s etching “The Fur Cap” is featured in “Wall’s Etched Monthly” Number 1, Volume 3, published September 1921, and reprinted in the 1924 edition. It is unknown how Gus came to the attention of Bernhardt Wall, but it is noted that Wall’s address in 1921 was 1947 Broadway, New York City.
In the Polk’s NYC Directory (Manhattan & Bronx) Residential Directory of 1925, Gus’s entry is as follows:

Cenci, Gustavo (Am Lamp Shade Co) h310 E. 116th. His brothers Elio and Terzo are also listed as living at this address.

According to the February 28, 1928 edition of The Frederick Post newspaper (Frederick, Maryland), Gus and his brother, sculptor Terzo Cenci, are pictured working from live model Rev. Lincoln Caswell, on a painting (Gus) and a sculpted bust (Terzo). The photo caption confirms that work was done “at New York,” and is a news service photo by Pacific & Atlantic. Caswell was a descendent of President Abraham Lincoln, and bore an uncanny likeness to his progenitor. He was also a scion of the Caswells of Caswell & Massey.

The 1930 U.S. federal census shows Gus, age 32, living at 310 East 116th Street, as a decorator with his own shop.

In 1933, through a mutual friend, a young artist still in high school was brought to Gus’s attention. Her name was Lucia Autorino. Gus’s studio at that time was at the corner of 23rd Street and Lexington Avenue in New York City. Here at this studio, Gus taught mural painting to Lucia, who already had a substantial portfolio. Lucia went on to study at the National Academy of Design. She later married Attilio Salemme, after the two met when both were working at the Guggenheim. Lucia is one of the foremost female American abstract artists, and credits her early studies with Gus for much of her technique.
With the Depression years in full swing, Gus applied for a Social Security card on December 4, 1936. He was then living at 116 Lexington Avenue, and listed his employer as the Treasury Relief [Art] Project (TRAP). (Created in 1935 by a Works Progress Administration grant awarded to the Treasury Department, TRAP was formed to give work to unemployed artists and to bring as many people as possible into a new and sometimes daily relationship with art.) Gus and many other artists produced works for federal buildings and federal hospitals.

During his tenure with TRAP, Gus was apparently a prolific painter of murals. In 1936, he assisted the noted muralist, Domenico Mortellito, in the painting of 4 arched panels and 9 lunettes, all oil on canvas, depicting occupations, and painted in the Depression-Realist style. These works still can be seen in the Port Chester, New York Post Office. At the time, a controversy raged over the painting of these murals. The dispute seems to have been part of a quarrel between local Democratic and Republican factions, but the stated objection was to its colors which then seemed loud, but seem tame today.

Also in 1936, Gus painted another TRAP work which is untitled. This work recently came to light, and is currently in the collection of the Smithsonian Museum of American Art in Washington, DC. The oil on canvas depicts a mountain and forest landscape with deer. This theme was a favorite of Gus’ that he carried on throughout the years.
Additionally during this time, according to Gus’ nephew, Gus painted murals on the walls of some of New York City’s movie houses.

Gus filed a Petition for Naturalization on May 24, 1940 in the Southern District of New York. He listed his address as 430 East 148th Street, Bronx, NY, and his occupation as “artist-mural painter.” On August 27, 1941, at the age of 44, Gus swore an Oath of Allegiance to the United States of America.

With the outbreak of World War Two, newly-sworn US citizen Gustavo Cenci filed a draft registration card. By this time he was 45 years of age, residing at 432 Lafayette Street, New York City. He did not serve.

Through an interview with Gus’ nephew, it was learned that Gus at one point in time went back to Europe, to Spain and France, to study in these countries. Anecdotally, it was related that Gus had been a student at The Cooper Union in New York City; this has not been confirmed. According to one of Gus’ long-time models, Gus knew his contemporaries, Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall.

According to the July 1956 Ocean County telephone book, Elio and his brother, Gustavo, were both living at 212 Main Street, Toms River, telephone number TomsRiv8-0969.

According to one of Gus’s former models:

“Gus and my mother loved to talk together. He was a most convivial person, had a lot of friends. My recollection is that he spoke with a marked Italian accent. I think he was considered somewhat bohemian (since he was an artist), in a small town like Toms River. He lived down the street from us. Gus gave the painting I now have to my mother one Christmas and she later gave it to me. What I do remember is that I was a terrible sitter: I couldn’t sit still, hated posing! He did some of the painting from memory. My mother passed away in 2001. I remember she told me that the studio burned down, but I don’t remember where it was or when it happened.”

GUS IN SULLIVAN & ORANGE COUNTIES, NEW YORK…THE LATER YEARS

Sometime in 1963, Gus moved to Monticello, New York, living at 374 Broadway. He wrote a letter to his old friends from Toms River, Ben & Sadie Simmons, giving them an update on his life, along with his new address. By 1966, Gus had moved to Cairo, NY, and rented a storefront and upstairs apartment on Main Street, a few doors down from the Post Office. Here he gave art lessons, sold paintings and supplies, and also sold cameras and other photography equipment. It was in this shop that Gus befriended Cairo’s current town historian, Robert Uzzilia. Gus and Bob spoke frequently about photography and football.

According to Bob,

“The highlights of our conversations include his being commissioned to do a large mural in the city of Baltimore as a young aspiring artist. He also did some nice commission artwork throughout the Hudson Valley of landscapes. Even one for the grocery store we used to own on Main Street in the 60s & 70s, but he also did still-lifes and people. I have a few pieces of his work in my collection. I remember him looking the part of the artist, complete with beret and smock, often working in his window. Paintings lined the wall in the little studio (which unfortunately has been totally remodeled. It was formerly a fish store, I believe in the 40s & 50s). I don’t know how successful he was commercially, but I thought he was an interesting person to know and I valued his friendship.”

When the old A&P grocery store was on Cairo’s Main Street, Gus was commissioned, in 1963, to paint four 3′x6′ murals that hung in the store. Two of these are now in the possession of Robert Uzzilia, and two are in the possession of Gus’ family.

From a letter dated March 17, 1966 from Gus to his friends Ben & Sadie Simmons of Toms River, it was learned that Gus was a Third Degree Mason.

Throughout his lifetime, Gus gave away and sold many paintings to friends and family members. Unfortunately, a significant number of these were stolen or destroyed. A full set of kitchen furniture, decoratively hand-painted by Gus, is in the possession of his grand-niece. Many paintings are in the possession of various family members living throughout the United States.
On January 25, 1982, Gus was found dead in his Cairo, NY, art store/gallery. He was two days shy of his 85th birthday. His remains were cremated. He never married and had no children. According to Gus’ niece his ashes were scattered, per his wishes. (Rev: 5/28/07)