It’s wonderful that figurative realistic painting is alive and thriving, despite the introduction of photography 150 years ago, Leonid Gervits says.
A Russian émigré, Gervits moved to America in 1991, bearing impressive credentials, having studied at the Odessa Art College, and the Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg. He taught at the Repin Institute of the Academy of Fine Arts. Once in this country, he started to add to his accomplishments, teaching at the New York Academy of Figurative Art and then at The Art Students League, where he still gives classes.
Reflecting his interests in painting and drawing from life, many of his works invite musing on back stories. As with this week’s cover art, the oil painting “Café Europa” has an “Impressionist-Realist” feel that seems appropriate for the mixed mood the painting captures. The figures’ sculpted arms, manifest with shadowing brushwork, contrast with the white of the young man’s shirt and the cups and cake, organizing the canvas tonally. The whole is a scene of warmth and contentedness, but also of slight melancholy, as suggested by the raindrops on the window.
Typically, a Gervits painting reveals his academic, classical training by way of compositions and techniques associated with the Old Masters. That means monochromatic underpainting and glazing, which has earned him a reputation for being in the “European/Russian Realist tradition.” But “Café Europa” is looser, done on white gesso prime, multilayered, but without the monochromatic underpainting.” The effect is more atmospheric. Gervits resists categories, however, and follows his own moods as well as those of his models. He has said that even flowers, which are difficult to paint, have personalities.
What is the story behind the two characters in “Café Europa?”
I’ve been teaching now for about 18 years at The Art Students League and pass the Café Europa that’s on the corner of 57th and 7th. I like the interior look of the place, its wooden polished dark chocolate brown panels which remind me of Vienna or London or St. Petersburg. The way that light plays off the counters and bronze metallic parts gives me a spirit of the good old times of the real Europa, which I tried to approximate as to mood, but not actual interior accuracy. I also wanted to depict what I sometimes see in young couples—a girl intently looking at a young man but the young man otherwise absorbed.
How did you come to cover such vastly different subject matter in your work—figures, landscapes, seascapes, scenes reflecting life?
And Jewish holidays. I came to the U.S. as a Jewish refugee from the former USSR and settled down in Jersey City. On my first stroll around the area I was stunned in front of City Hall to see a huge menorah. That would be impossible in the country I came from.
What classes do you teach and what is their value to emerging and professional artists?
Figure, portraits, wider scenes, but I also give a workshop on drawing drapery because it teaches a lot about dimensionality.
What unites all the diverse subject matter—musical groups, ballerinas, domestic scenes, landscapes, portraits formal, intimate, both?
My skills, I hope. I do what touches my heart. All my pictures are my kids.
Gervits’ work can be seen on gervits.com and at the Chrysalis Gallery in Southampton, as well as at the gallery at The Art Students League. For those traveling abroad, his work can be seen in the Museum of the History of St. Petersburg, The Pushkin Museum in Pskov preserve Mikhailovskoje, the Lenin Museum in Gorki, the Pushkin Museum in Odessa, and the State Art Museum in Odessa. His book Portraits by Leonid Gervits will be out in hardback soon.