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 Birney Lettick  (1919 - 1986)

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Lived/Active: New York      Known for: illustration, portrait, figure-fantasy

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Ad Code: 4
Birney Lettick
from Auction House Records.
Falstaff in a Lacquer Pot, Shell Chemical Corporation advertisement
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Birney Lettick became a highly-regarded, much sought after illustrator, whose career included ads and cover art for movie promotions and for Time, Colliers, National Geographic, and Reader's Digest.  He was also a painter, and created over twenty portraits of world and industry leaders for the cover of Time Magazine, all of which are part of the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D.C. His final painting before his death was a portrait of President Reagan for the cover of Time.

Lettick was a native of Connecticut and attended Yale University Art School as a student of Josef Albers.  Anatomy instruction included the dissection of cadavers.
Before starting his art career, he served in World War II.  From 1955 to 1970, he taught at the New Haven Art Workshop, and shortly before he died, he did a lecture tour in Japan to art school students at the Tokyo Designers Gakium College and in schools in Nagoya, Osaka, and Kyushu.

To quote Gail Lettick, "Stylistically speaking, Birney Lettick was a realist. Philosophically, he recognized that the essence of realism had to be an approximation and exaggeration, not an imitation of nature and that the emotional re-creation of a subject is what separates realistic painting from the photograph."

Lettick attended Yale University School of Fine Art at a time when the fundamentals of art were taught.  While at school, Birney was the recipient of the Tiffany Scholarship awarded to the ten most promising art students in the country.

Throughout his forty-year career Lettick fulfilled that promise, whether producing entertainment, commercial or fine art.  He moved gracefully from one to another with the same degree of honesty and professionalism.  His paintings, both illustrations and fine art, have been on exhibition in numerous solo shows, at the Brooklyn Museum, New York Historical Society, New Britain Museum of American Art, Albright-Knox Museum, and are in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institute.  Lettick's Cinema Art was posthumously exhibited in a touring solo show in Japan in 1986.

Source:
Renee Kezar Fine Art
Walt Reed, The Illustrator in America, 1860-2000
----------------------------------------------------------------------
The following, submitted April 2004, is from Barbara Tanke.

I graduated from Westminster College, New Wilmington, Pennsylvania in June 1978, with a Fine Arts degree in Art with honors.  One of the artists whose work I was most interested in at that time, was Birney Lettick.  I had seen the February 12, 1979 cover of Time Magazine, featuring Lettick's work of the Ayatollah Khomeini.  It looked like a photograph of the Ayatollah pushing himself through a larger image of himself.  I had to take a second look to make sure it was not a photograph.  The detail was precise.  My art style in college was similar in detailing, and I wrote to Rosemary Frank, head of Time Magazine's covers, to find out more about Mr. Lettick.  Her response (typed on a typewriter remember those?) on letterhead from March 13, 1979 was:

Dear Ms. Tanke.

It is against our policy to give out the addresses of those free-lance artists who do work for Time.  But I will send your letter to Birney Lettick.  He may have some material that he can send to you.  Meanwhile I can send you this tear sheet of the Ayatollah Khomeini cover.  A study of Lettick's work is one way to know more of him and his technique.  We appreciate your interest. Sincerely, Rosemary Frank, Covers.

So I assumed my letter was forwarded on to him and forgot about it. That same month, March, 1979, two other art graduate friends and I decided to take a trip to New York City and do the town and galleries.  We drove a distance of 8 hours to get there in a day.  I got back after that weekend, raving about the trip and what we had seen.  New York was exciting for three graduate art students.  I walked to the mailbox to find, not even 3 days later, a handwritten letter for me.  I turned over the letter and it said "Birney Lettick, 121 E. 35 Street, New York, NY 10016".  I think the whole neighborhood heard me screaming as I ran back into the house.

The letter was handwritten from Mr. Lettick and said:

Feb. 25, 1979

Dear Barbara,

Time forwarded your letter to me and I appreciate the query.  I have a studio in my home in N.Y. City and would be glad to talk to you if and when you come to New York. My phone number is 216-532-**** and the address is _ E. 35 St. in Manhattan; call first and bring some of your work to show me, if you like.  I've taught for 25 years and perhaps could give you a pointer or 2.  Yours, Birney Lettick.

"If and when I am in New York? I said to myself!.I just got back from there!"  Well, I immediately called and spoke with Mr. Lettick's wife and he came to the phone.  I told him I had just returned from a weekend in New York.  He said "Well, next time you plan to come to New York, let me know and we will arrange to meet."  I told him I could come back the next weekend, and planned a return trip on his invitation. I drove another 8 hours across NY state with another friend and returned the next weekend with my portfolio.

Once we found his address, my friend dropped me off in front.  It was a brownstone building in a very nice area.  I was a set of nerves when I walked up the front steps with my large black portfolio.  When the door opened, a young attractive blonde woman was greeting me, holding a tree twig in her hand and introduced herself by her first name.  It was Mrs. Lettick.  She had been in the back working in the garden. She issued me into the foyer and told me she would go tell Birney I was there.  Inside the hallway, and up the stairs, were several paintings he had done.  I immediately sketched all these paintings down on paper, when I left at the end of the day.

One was an artist's wooden mannequin who was painting its self-portrait with a paint brush in hand, and its reflection in a mirror.  Another work was a very detailed still life for an Aetna Life insurance calendar.  A third painting was the bare bottom nude of a woman with tan marks.  The fourth painting was a side profile of a man, with a moon above his head.  This image was repeated in three vertical sections.  The man was very old and wrinkled.  The fifth painting was very detailed and again, an artists wooden mannequin, with pencil in hand, drawing a Rembrandt.  I later found out, that this art piece was in the Albright Art Gallery, in Buffalo, NY.  One of the most striking paintings was a large fluorescent type moon glowing, seen through a large open window and on the window sill, to the left, was an small tiny egg. a striking difference in size of the two objects.  There was also a painting of a black male nude in a fetal position, and separate work of a blonde girl, also in a fetal position.

Mr. Lettick came down the stairs and introduced himself and I shook his hand.  I honestly don't remember much of his appearance because I was so engrossed in his work hanging throughout the entryway and while we walked upstairs.  I remember he was distinguished with graying hair.  He showed me his studio and took me toward the front of the house where his drawing table and supplies were.  There was so much light and a wonderful spot to work.  He said "Let me show you what I am working on. This you will no doubt see in magazines shortly."

It was the original artwork for "Escape from Alcatraz" on his drawing table.  It showed Clint Eastwood with a metal pick chipping through stone.  I asked him how he got the likeness and expressions so exact of the actor.  He said, "I have a mirror and I do a lot of facial expressions to get the right look." He then showed me several other pieces of work:

1. An AARP Auxiliary ad of Archie Bunker, Ernest Borgnine and two other unknowns;
2. The movie ad for "The Big Fix" with Richard Dreyfuss;
3. The movie ad for "Sgt. Pepper" starring all of the Bee Gees;
4. A painting for the movie "The Goodbye Girl".

I asked him again about the likeness of his subjects. Richard Dreyfuss likeness was so exact ("The Big Fix") and he said "He posed for me. Sometimes I get the person to pose for me and/or use photos. He posed for this one.  He was a nut and very funny.  He was crazy during the photo shoot, and while I was painting."  Mr. Lettick then commented on his painting for the Goodbye Girl and said "This piece wasn't accepted for the movie".  It was a painting of Richard Dreyfuss and Marsha Mason sitting on the rooftop in New York City, having wine and pizza, with the lights of New York below.  Very detailed work and very striking.

I then questioned the Sgt. Pepper painting which showed all four of the Bee Gees. This work was accepted by the studio and he was in constant contact with them while he finalized it.  He said "You know, you have to put up with a lot of aggravation with the people in L.A and the studios. They hire a staff of so many artists, and we all do a piece of artwork for the movie.  Then they pick one artist's work.  I've been fortunate that they like my work and continue to use me.  One artist is picked, and then you get paid for that work, for their use.  This particular artwork for Sgt. Pepper was a pain in the ****."  The studio contacted me and said to add their bodies for the stand up movie ad.  I did the bodies for each of them.  They are holding a large tuba.  Paramount called me back and said they didn't like Barry's leg position so Im reworking that."  He sounded a little frustrated, but wanted me to know what was involved on a daily basis.

He didn't sugar coat anything, and he gave me a good idea of the ups and downs of the business.

Other work I was shown included:

The movie ad from "Hurricane", with Mia Farrow.  The painting was completed, and not used. It had a very wet look.

"Foul Play" with Chevy Chase and Goldie Hawn

"Heaven Can Wait" with Warren Beatty in angel wings.

Mr. Lettick then spent time and went through my portfolio.  He was very helpful.  He said I was "very talented" and the only thing he suggested was more work with anatomy and suggested "Gray's Anatomy Book".  He said that he loved his work, but that "you have to put up with a lot of different people in the industry, if you can deal with that."  He said that he and his wife would help me, if I ever wanted to move to New York.

His wife came in the room, and said, "Yes, we will help you."  I told them both how much I appreciated the time they gave me, and that I would let him know my plans.  I was there a little over an hour.  These are my memories of my afternoon with Birney Lettick. I was in my early 20s then.  I am now 50.  It was one of the most exciting experiences for me to have met him -- a very nice man and willing to help.



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