Rare Sale of Cartoonist and Painter Denys Wortman's Work


Denny Wortman
Denny Wortman shares his father’s passion at the Louisa Gould Gallery this month.
(Photo by Kathryn Osgood)



Like many popes and kings, Denys Wortman of Vineyard Haven is the eighth in a dynastic lineup. The seventh Denys Wortman was a nationally known cartoonist – and mid-century president of the Society of Illustrators of New York – who happened to do a lot of painting on the side. But because dad died in 1958, when son Denny was in his second year of college, the eighth wasn’t aware until the early 1990s that the seventh was a splendid painter.

On the road to enshrining his father’s and his mother Hilda Renbold Wortman’s memories, in the early nineties Denny fulfilled a fantasy that most of us dream about but never actually achieve: He bought back his family’s house (at the tip of Hines Point). For years before Denny and his wife Marilyn moved to the Island year-round, the senior Wortman’s paintings had been stacked away in dusty piles. One day in the new/old home, Denny set them up against a wall and trained a camera’s lens on them.

“The photographs saw past the dirt,” Denny says. “I suddenly realized that the paintings were truly beautiful.”

He began a process of shipping the canvases one by one to be resurrected by art restorer Dick McElroy in Woodstock, Connecticut. Denny began to organize exhibits of his dad’s work in museums and galleries up and down the eastern seaboard. Until recently, however, Denny has been reluctant to sell any of the pieces. And then...on the Vineyard, gallery owner Louisa Gould began to take notice of the late Wortman’s prolific output. She practiced on the son another art – that of persuasion.

“I convinced Denny this was a chance to celebrate his father, and to bring his work to the attention of the art world. There’s no reason why Denys Wortman shouldn’t be as highly regarded and well known as his old friend Thomas Hart Benton,” Louisa says.

Thus was born the idea for the upcoming August show. A number of selected cartoon drawings – some are set on the Vineyard – will also be exhibited. Many are from the nationally syndicated series that made Denys Wortman a household name back in the 1920s through the mid-fifties, Mopey Dick and The Duke:

At a polling place, a tall lanky tramp in a rumpled fedora turns to his short pudgy sidekick in a battered cap, and says, “Mopey, you and me is too good friends to stay mad at each other just because of politics, so let’s compromise. I’ll vote for your candidate and you vote for mine.”

So reads one Denys Wortman cartoon. The artist churned out a new panel six days a week, every week, from 1924 to 1954 for the New York World (which became the New York World-Telegram and Sun). His cartoons also appeared in The New Yorker and Life. In a preface to a collection of his work, A. Hyatt Mayor, curator in the 1950s of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, wrote, “Denys Wortman will supply future historians with the most accurate and vivid record of life in American cities.”

The artist was born in 1887 in Saugerties, New York, a descendant of early Dutch Huguenot settlers. At the age of nine, young Denys had his first flutter with cartoons when he found a discarded stack of back issues from the humor magazine Puck. The boy was taken with drawings of tramps by a late-nineteenth-century illustrator named Frederick Burr Opper. Something about the freedom, good cheer, and what we would today call “voluntary simplicity” of the hobo lifestyle caught the nine-year-old’s fancy. He set up an easel beside the window of his family’s upstairs bathroom, claiming the space as his studio, and began the first drafts of his own tramp characters.

Although Wortman’s first love was illustration, his time spent painting (following studies at the New York School of Fine and Applied Art) yielded stunning works of bustling cityscapes as well as landscapes and seascapes in Bermuda, Gloucester, and Martha’s Vineyard – where he lived full time from 1941 until his death. In Cezanne-like grays and pastels, a painting entitled Bermuda Waterfront was exhibited at the famed New York Armory Show of 1913. His style carries over a certain Impressionist flair and sheer loveliness, but behind each brush stroke the precise technique of a realist and representationalist is very much evident. Wortman’s talent, in the face of his stated preference for cartoons, made him the most unpretentious of fine artists.

At the reacquired family home on Hines Point, Denny and Marilyn refilled his dad’s studio with file cabinets of cartoons, stored canvasses, and a long unused easel. Filled with northern light and the hush of a solitary getaway, the space evokes the original artist’s lair. Even considering that the eighth Wortman is finally ready to part with some of the artwork by the seventh, it is clear the spirit of his father will always be with him. u

– holly nadler

“Denys Wortman Sr.” runs August 12 to 26, with a reception Sunday, August 12, from 5 to 7 p.m., at the Louisa Gould Gallery, 54 Main Street, Vineyard Haven, 508-693-7373.

Martha's Vineyard Magazine
August 2007

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