Anglers, divers, naturalists, and art lovers will all enjoy the new exhibit at the Bruce Museum, “Lure of the Ocean: The Art of Stanley Meltzoff.”
By Arthur Stampleman
Anglers, divers, naturalists, and art lovers will all enjoy the new exhibit at the Bruce Museum, “Lure of the Ocean: The Art of Stanley Meltzoff.” It features paintings of the preeminent painter of fish underwater, Stanley Meltzoff (1917-2006).
The 30 works, some three- to four-feet long, take a highly realistic look at fish in their native environments, from the New Jersey shore and shallows of the Caribbean to the Australian reefs and the deep Atlantic waters. Meltzoff’s subjects include marlin, bluefish, striped bass, tuna, and sharks.
The exhibition is complemented by the display of a dozen or so mounted specimens, both fiberglass models and taxidermy specimens. These include Meltzoff’s own world-record, 65-pound striped bass, caught in 1963, and a 400-pound Atlantic Bluefin tuna. Combining paintings and specimens reminds us how effective the Bruce is at exhibiting both art and natural history.
Meltzoff was born in New York City. After a classical education in the arts, he joined the Army in World War II and worked as an editor for Stars & Stripes. He taught art at both CCNY and Pratt Institute, and then became a full-time illustrator. His work appeared in Scientific American, The Saturday Evening Post, Life, Fortune, and National Geographic.
When the media shifted their interests from illustration to photography in the 1960s, Meltzoff began to explore a new career path. Sports Illustrated spawned his second career. The magazine commissioned him to do a series on bluefish, tarpon, sailfish, bonefish, and more. From then on, Meltzoff, an ardent diver, wandered the world in search of fish, logging countless hours underwater.
Using his research – in fish stalking, rigging, tethering, tanking, and freezing – he vividly brought to life the undersea world. His method was to catch fish and tank or freeze them to observe them. Those that he froze, he would hang in his studio so he could paint them at the desired angle.
When one thinks of fine naturalist art, John James Audubon (1785-1851) is the name that comes most quickly to mind. “The Birds of America” is considered one of the finest ornithological works of art. Like Audubon, Meltzoff tried to show species in as realistic a manner as possible. And he went further in detailing their habitat. His combination of clear brushwork and subtle play of light gives his marine subjects a dynamic vitality.
The exhibit is organized by species and habitat. Meltzoff began learning about undersea life by exploring tide pools on the New Jersey shore and scuba diving from Cape Hatteras to Cape Cod. So, the first stop is the Northeast, which includes a striped bass looking for a meal of crabs.
In warm hallows, one painting looks at a tarpon moving in mangrove shrubs. In another, a shark swims around coral-encrusted cannons on the sea floor near remnants of an old shipwreck.
Deep oceanic water at the edge of the continental shelf is the third habitat covered. Here Meltzoff captured impressive, big game fish on canvas. “The first step in painting a billfish is to see one alive. No picture of any marlin, broadbill, or sailfish can replace the living experience,” he explained.
The museum plans several special programs in conjunction with the exhibit. On March 10, the focus of Family Art Appreciation Day is “Learning to Look at Animal Paintings.” Two related lectures are scheduled next month: “Blue Water, Big Fish: A History of Big-Game Fishing” on April 21; and “Sharks and Rays of the North Atlantic: Jaws or National Treasure” on April 28.
The exhibit runs through June 2. The Bruce Museum is open Tuesday to Saturday from 10 to 5 and Sunday from 1 to 5. For more information, call 203-869-0376 or visit brucemuseum.org. Docent tours are offered most Fridays at 12:30 p.m.