The art of this German immigrant is still being discovered today by American critics and patrons, but his public popularity began during the 1920s when his portraits of the ‘New Negroes’ in Harlem and his African-inspired designs were enthusiastically received, along with his portraits of the Blackfeet and Blood Indians of the American Northwest and Canada, many of which illustrated the Great Northern Railway calendars. Reiss believed that by picturing the honor, beauty, and dignity of all peoples, his art could help break down racial prejudices and testify to what Johann Wolfgang von Goethe called the “unity of all creation.” His wish was to use art to change the world.
Born in Karlsruhe, Germany, Winold was the son of Fritz Reiss, a painter trained at the Düsseldorf Academy, who made drawing and painting the German landscape and its peasants his life work. Fritz Reiss was his son’s first teacher, but after that tutelage, Winold went to Munich where he attended both the Royal Academy of Fine Arts (Kunstakademie), studying with Franz von Stuck, and the School of Applied Arts (Kunstgewerbeschule), where he studied with Julius Diez. He emigrated to America in 1913 and settled in New York City, where he quickly became well known for his strong, colorful graphic designs as well as for his modern commercial interiors.
Coming to America also gave Winold the opportunity to meet and paint portraits of Native Americans, the American Indians who had fascinated him when as a boy he had read the Wild West stories of Karl May and the Leatherstocking Tales of James Fenimore Cooper. In 1920 he traveled to Browning, Montana, where he drew portraits of Blackfeet elders who had survived the nineteenth-century struggles for independence, as well as an emerging generation of native farmers and ranchers in the subsequent reservation days. In 1920 he went on a six-week trip to Mexico and drew portraits of the heirs of the Aztecs and of Mexican revolutionaries.
In 1921 he visited his native Germany on the only trip he made back to Europe. Here he drew many portraits of German and Swedish folk types and colorful characters. After his return to New York City in 1922, he was chosen by the editor of the social welfare journal Survey Graphic to portray the major figures of the Harlem Renaissance for a special issue entitled Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro [March 1, 1925]. Dr. Alain Locke, Howard University philosophy professor and literary critic, was so impressed with Reiss’s portraits that he chose him to illustrate The New Negro: An Interpretation , the most important anthology of the Harlem Renaissance. In 1926, Survey Graphic asked Reiss to illustrate a special Pacific issue with portraits of Asian Americans.
Later, in 1927, he portrayed African Americans living on St. Helena Island for another Survey Graphic issue. In the 1920s and 1930s, his trips to Glacier National Park were financed by the Great Northern Railway, which selected many of his portraits to illustrate its travel calendars.
Reiss was also a highly successful graphic designer. His brightly colored covers and illustrations appeared in Scribner’s Magazine, Survey Graphic, Opportunity Magazine, and numerous other publications. In 1915 he co-founded the Society of Modern Art and its magazine, Modern Art Collector, which he used to introduce and spread modern design and color usage in the advertising world. He designed the interiors of numerous commercial establishments, including the Crillon Restaurant, Hotel Alamac, Hotel St. George, all of the Longchamps Restaurants in New York City and elsewhere, the Apollo Theater and the Tavern Club in Chicago, the Hotel President in Kansas City, and the Hess Brothers Restaurant in Allentown, Pennsylvania. For the World’s Fair in New York in 1939, he was selected to design the exterior façade of the Theatre and Concert Building. His most outstanding commission was for the Cincinnati Union Terminal, which opened in 1933. There he fused modern Art Deco design with portraits illustrating the history of Cincinnati in mosaics that have survived to the present day.
Never a loner, Reiss kept a popular and exciting studio in New York City, which during the 1920s and 1930s was frequented by artists such as Marion Greenwood, Isamu Noguchi, Aaron Douglas, Ludwig Bemelmans, and Carl Link, and intellectuals such as Alain Locke, Jessie Fauset, Paul Kellogg, and Paul Robeson. He opened his own art school in New York City, held a summer school in Woodstock, New York, as early as 1916, and during the 1930s conducted the Winold Reiss Summer School in Glacier Park, Montana. In 1933, he was appointed assistant professor of mural painting at New York University. Reiss died in New York City in 1953.
Reiss himself is just as important as his art, for he possessed a remarkably open, warm, and infectious personality, one that allowed him to win the trust and confidence of Blackfeet Indians, Mexican revolutionaries, and Harlem Black artists and intellectuals alike. His life and work challenge the categories by which we normally evaluate and characterize American and ethnic art in this country. Arriving in America in 1913, Reiss was inspired by its ethnic diversity and the art produced by the varied ethnic groups. In his own work he demonstrated that he could represent a variety of racial and ethnic groups as objectively and compassionately as if he were one of their own, breaking through the resistance of some minority communities to having a white man portray them.
Winold Reiss, Aline Davis and Bird Rattler, Winold Reiss Summer School, Glacier Park, Montana, 1935
In some respects, his devotion to drawing and painting non-white subjects minimized his work within the American art establishment. His idealism challenges the notion that as Americans we are anything less than “us,” a totality that includes rather than excludes.
Viewing and studying the work of Winold Reiss provide the student and expert with a series of challenges, for to understand this remarkable German artist, who came to America with a unique sense of what this country was, is to challenge our own preconceptions about what American art is and should be. As such, Winold Reiss was a hero who stuck to and disseminated a vision of art and its relationship to the American community that we in the twenty-first century are still struggling to realize. -Jeffrey C. Stewart, www.Winold-Reiss.org