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Michael Lenson

“New Jersey’s most important muralist,” Who Was Who in American Art, 2000

by Barry Lenson (the artist’s son)

Michael Lenson spent his earliest years in Galich, a city of 20,000 on the western steppes of the Ural mountains, about 180 miles northeast of Moscow. Then in 1911, Lenson’s parents, seven brothers and one sister left Russia and emigrated to New York. They all lived in the back of his father’s tailor shop until they could afford to take a tenement apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

In the school years that followed, all the brothers took up professions with the exception of Michael, who spent afternoons sketching at the Metropolitan Museum and taking art classes. In 1920, he enrolled in the National Academy of Design and later recalled . . .

“I was a student. I was doing whatever I could to pick up a dollar, just like everyone else . . . We all roosted in a little place on 116th Street and Third Avenue, one of those condemned wooden houses where . . . you’d wake up in the morning with snow on your blanket. It came in through the clapboards.”

Lenson’s roommates were the painters Louis Guglielmi (1906-1956) and Gregorio Prestopino (1907-1984), both of whom went on to notable careers. At age 25, Lenson was working nights in the Post Office, airbrushing pictures of shoes for catalogs by day, and becoming despondent. No big break had come his way.

All that changed in 1928, when he won the $10,000 Chaloner Foundation Prize and left to study in Europe for four years. Years later, he told me, “I thought Presto [Prestopino] would win the Chaloner that year, not me. He had taken second place the year before and I figured it was a forgone conclusion.”

Of all his experiences abroad, Lenson most valued the training he got at the Slade School of Art in London where he “. . . sat at a drafting table month after month, drawing and drawing like a madman, using nothing but needle-sharp, hard-leaded pencils.” Those months refined Lenson’s basic talent for drawing and made him a truly extraordinary draftsman.

In London, Lenson met the English muralists Colin and Pauline Gill, who taught him some mural-painting basics such as “sounding out” a wall, filling in hollow areas and applying primer. These skills would help him when he joined the WPA after his return home.

Paris became his home for most of his time in Europe. He studied at the Academie des Beaux-Arts and exhibited his works in the Summer and Spring Salons, the Goupil Gallery and other venues. He saw Ravel conduct, heard Chaliapin sing and, because Lenson was a handsome man, escorted some glamourous women, including the expatriate American concert pianist Henrietta Schuman. Lenson’s full-length formal portrait of her, now apparently lost, was reproduced in the American magazine Town and Country.

When Lenson returned to America in 1932, he felt ready to attract notice and approval in the art world. His first one-man show at Caz Delbo Gallery in 1933 won encouraging reviews. On April 30, 1933, the distinguished Times critic Howard Devree wrote . . .

“One of these newcomers was Michael Lenson, winner of the Chaloner Paris Prize some years ago – a young man With his thirtieth year still well ahead, whose work belies his youth. After several years spent chiefly in France and Spain, he stands at the beginning of a very promising career, without close allegiance to any of the great names or schools. Yet in the best sense of the word he is traditional.”

“Lenson is preoccupied with certain problems of color and form. The best of his things strike a good working balance between the two. His figure studies . . . show him at his best. His still life is restrained both in color and form, refinement without academism. The portraits show sympathy with old masters of the French school and yet are thoroughly modern. His land-scapes are well worked out and lighted, if not quite as free as they will become. His later things give evidence of growing freedom in the use of clear, rich color and of gathering power of simplification.”

In the Post, Margaret Breuning wrote that “. . . all the work has an integrity and soundness which warrant a belief in the artist’s future performance.”

Lenson continued to advance his career, exhibiting in group shows at the Museum of Modern Art in 1935 and the Corcoran retrospectives of 1935 and 1938. Yet few collectors were buying paintings in those bleak depression years. Lenson was hard-pressed to get his work shown widely or earn a living. That’s when he discovered the WPA.

In 1936, he arrived at Halsey Street in Newark and joined the projects, where his exceptional abilities attracted notice and a big assignment. His first major project, in 1936, was “The History of New Jersey,” a large mural (75 feet by 16 feet, now destroyed) for the Essex Mountain Sanitorium in Verona, New Jersey.

Over the next seven years, Lenson painted some of New Jersey’s most remarkable works of public art, including “History of the Enlightenment of Man” (Weequahic High School, Newark, extant) the immense multi-panel “History of Newark” (Newark City Hall, extant) as well as smaller works around the state. In 1939, Lenson won a Federal Arts Project competition and painted “Mining,” still to be seen at the Post Office in Mount Hope, West Virginia. In his remarkable design for this mural, Lenson took great pains to depict the very type of men (central Europeans, African-Americans) who were working in local mines at the time.

In addition to mounting the scaffolds to paint, Lenson was also an administrator for the New Jersey projects and supervised the design and installation of many more murals around the state. (“They decided I was supervisory material and made me Assistant State Supervisor in charge of the Mural and Easel Division.”) Fortunately for us, the Archives of American Art’s Oral History Project interviewed Lenson in 1963. We therefore have a detailed account of his activities as both painter and administrator for the projects.

One thrilling experience for Lenson was to design and paint “New Jersey Agriculture and Industry,” enormous murals for the New Jersey Pavilion at the 1939 Worlds Fair. Lenson and his crew had little more than a month to complete the project. Would the murals be ready in time? Lenson used opaque projectors to quickly transfer the design onto canvas and devised other shortcuts. Reporters from New Jersey and New York papers visited, flash bulbs crackled, and Lenson and his crew became temporary celebrities before the public eye. The deadline was met, the murals were installed. And now, like so many works of the era, they are lost.

Lenson never let his mural activities pull him away from easel painting. He continued to paint and exhibit widely. (For a list of exhibitions, visit the Friends of Michael Lenson Website at www.michaellenson.org) Yet after the depression came and went, Lenson’s career was interrupted by two more sizeable obstacles. First came World War II. (Lenson registered for service but was never called because of his age.) Then, when the war ended and he thought his career would regain momentum, the New York art world became infatuated with European abstractionism.

Lenson, who refused to abandon the refined realism he had perfected, kept painting realist paintings, and watched his career falter. Lenson, who valued Tolstoy’s dictum that art should serve a human purpose, resisted abstraction until the end. Now, more than 30 years after his death, people have regained the perspective to value what he accomplished on the projects and in his beloved studio in Nutley, New Jersey, where he painted every day until his death in 1971 at the age of 68.

Lenson is also remembered for his skills as teacher and critic. He taught painting at Rutgers University and at the Montclair Art Museum for many years. He was art critic of the Newark Sunday News for 16 years where his weekly “Realm of Art” column won him praise from scholar William Gerdts as “New Jersey’s most distinguished art critic.”

Lenson married June Rollar (1918-1992) in 1945. They had two sons. David is a Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Massachusetts and the Editor of the Massachusetts Review. Barry, who wrote this article, is an author who lives in Millburn, New Jersey. Barry would welcome any questions e-mailed to him through the Friends of Michael Lenson Website at www.michaellenson.org