The following article by Shari Morrison, submitted by Debrianna Mansini, was written for publication in Western Art & Architecture
, April/May 2013.
Ernest Chiriacka (1913-2010)
If the name Ernest Chiriacka (1913-2010) isn't familiar to you as a leading Western artist, there's reason for that. It isn't that he wasn't trained at the best art schools in America, for he studied at the venerable Art Students League and at the equally prestigious National Academy of Design. For four years he studied under Harvey Dunn, a protégé of Howard Pyle, at the Grand Central School of Art. As a young lad Chiriacka would draw with anything he could find, charcoal from the fire, pieces of sheet rock that he could use like chalk on sidewalks. By the time he was a teenager he was known as the "Rembrandt of Third Avenue."
With a natural talent for drawing, Chiriacka would go on to have great financial successes with his abilities to draw and paint.
After his death in 2010, a resurgence of interest has piqued for his fine art, in part, due to the accessibility that collectors now have to his estate. For the first time in 27 years, daughter Athene Westergaard has unveiled paintings and illustrations of her father's life, showing them in Santa Fe. It's almost as if with his death, Ernest Chiriacka was born once more into the art world he loved.
Born Anastassios Kyriakakos in New York City on May 11, 1913, a son of Greek immigrants, Ernest Chiriacka is the transliterated English equivalent of Anastassios Kyriakakos. The familiar form of the name Anastassios is "Tassi," which sounds like the English name "Darcy" which he was called by friends and family.
His life could well be told today in a dramatic PBS program, something like Downton Abbey, having lived through the Great Depression and World War II. If it were the 1930's it could well be romanticized in a series of pulp fiction novels with seductive covers suggesting intrigue and mystery. Or if we lived in the 1950's his life could become a popular series in any of America's popular magazines of the time; Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, Esquire,
Except, Ernest Chiriacka, the artist, was creating his life during the 1930's by painting pulp fiction covers under assumed names, a cloak and dagger act to hide his identity until he could break into the big time of "slicks" — American's glossy family oriented magazines.
In the America of the 1940's and 50's, illustrators were in high demand to fuel the fantasies of readers who lived from month to month clinging to the latest adventure of their hero portrayed on glossy paper in the "slicks". Paintings of live action adventurers popped off the pages and into the imaginations of readers, who were not yet inundated with television. Ernest Chiriacka created many of these scenes, working day and night to supply a multitude of magazines that printed his paintings on their pages — Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, Esquire, Argosy
Having attained his dream to move from painting for pulp novels to illustrating slicks, Chiriacka once again used his guile, painting under different names, this time due to non-compete clauses with publishers. While it proved to be a pathway to success for selling his illustrations, it was, at the same time, as if he were shooting himself in the foot. Although he desired to have a recognized name like Norman Rockwell, Chiriacka, in fact, had too many names.
His style of his work was highly sought after. He painted with what author David Saunders, who interviewed Chiriacka at his New York estate before his death in 2010 described as "…a handsome style of abbreviated realism to create convincing illusions…this style was perfected by John Singer Sargeant, who premixed each stroke from his infinitely malleable colors of oil paints, while Chiriacka simply used flat colors from jars of tempera paints but he locked those planes into a suggested depth by the bravura of his drawing strength."
Chiriacka became highly popular in the early fifties when he was asked to paint two pin-ups for Esquire
. He replaced the artist Vargas, who had created pin-up girls for Esquire's
calendar and for five years, from 1952-1957, he painted the beauties. Author Saunders says, "His sultry women have the dignity and proportions of a classic statue of Aphrodite."
Ernest Chiriacka had become wealthy, buying an estate, but he had sacrificed his name power for the sake of employment. It was in the 1960's when at last, he began his career as a fine artist showing his work at Kennedy Galleries and Grand Central Galleries in New York City that he began using his American name.
Chiriacka painted subjects on canvas with oil, which had fascinated him since childhood. Indians and the West became a passion. In the mid- sixties to the mid-seventies, he and his wife and their pet bird would take road tours for months, to the West and the Southwest, to New Mexico and Arizona, to Colorado and the Dakotas, visiting reservations and doing research. He became fascinated with Lewis and Clark, and in 1973, the Battle of Wounded Knee deeply touched him.
Kennedy Galleries and Grand Central Galleries in New York City sold his work. It was popular in Chicago at the Mongerson-Wunderlich Gallery and in other galleries from Florida to Wyoming. He continued to travel, even to the European Continent, sketching and painting, spending time in Greece and with his daughter and grandchildren who lived in Belgium.
In 1961 he started sculpting, creating more than 20 different pieces, some in bronze and some, one-of-a-kind. Joel Meisner and Company Cast his fine art bronzes.
An unplanned event would alter the course of his life — a tiny bite from a deer tick at his estate in Montack, NY caused Chiriacka to lose the ability to paint and completely disabled him. Lyme's disease, as it is now known, was not in the vernacular of medical professionals, nor was a cure. Bound to a wheelchair and unable to paint, his wife gathered all of his paintings that were in galleries back into his studio, thinking this malady would forever be his life.
Eventually he did recover and eventually, he began to paint again but as his daughter Athene says, "Once you have had a close escape, you begin to value life in a different way. He didn't wish to have to meet deadlines anymore."
Fortunately, Chiriacka's work is collected by museums for the public to view. The Phippen Museum of Western Art in Prescott, AZ is featuring two of his pieces in an exhibit titled Early West Storytellers on view through July 7, 2013. The importance of Chiriacka and other early West painters, according to the Museum's Director, Kim Villalpando, "is that the artists captured the American spirit…from Lewis and Clark Expedition to others who were seeking opportunity." Each of their stories is told in paintings in the exhibit. Crossing a Sea of Grass
and A Cheyenne Bride
by Ernest Chiriacka, tell their stories with passion and with admiration, as Chiriacka did in all of his paintings, whether they be for pulp fiction novels, "slick" magazines or fine art paintings.
This came from his daughter regarding his pseudonyms : "My dad used: Ernest Chiriacka, Ernest Chiriaka, Ernest Chiri Acka, Acka, Ernest Darcy, Darcy, Anastassios Kyriakakos, James Fenimore Darcy."
Submitted by Debrianna Mansini in communication with the daughter.