Zoltan Sepeshy (1898-1974)
Egg varnish tempera with casein tempera underpainting over gesso on a tempered masonite panel, 18 x 26 inches. Signed lower right: "z sepeshy"
Ogden Art Guild, Ogden, UT (traveling exhibition), February, 1946; Midtown Galleries, New York, NY (group show), September/October, 1946; Twentieth Biennial Exhibition of American Painting, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (1947), no. ___; 123rd Annual Exhibition, National Academy of Design, New York, NY (spring, 1949), no. 58; National Institute of Arts and Letters, New York, NY, May-July, 1949; Cowie Galleries (Biltmore Salon), Los Angeles, CA (solo exhibition), May, 1951.
"Academic Rewards: National Institute of Arts and Letters Shows Work by Members and Grantees," by Howard Devree, New York Times, May 29, 1949, p. 163.
Schmeckebier, Laurence, Zoltan Sepeshy: Forty Years of His Work (exhibition catalogue, Syracuse University and The Cranbrook Academy of Art, 1966); Houghton, James, Zoltan Sepeshy Remembered (essay, exhibition catalogue, Muskegon Museum of Art, 2002, online at http://www.tfaoi.org/aa/3aa/3aa226.htm).
Midtown Galleries, New York, NY; acquired from Midtown in June, 1952 (for $600) by Hugh Smith, Scarsdale, NY; acquired in 2006 by Jason Schoen Fine Arts, Miami, FL, from a Savannah, GA individual who had inherited the painting from the original purchaser; acquired from the foregoing by Jonathan Boos, Taylor, MI (for his private collection), March 1, 2007; transferred to Jonathan Boos Fine Art, New York, NY, spring, 2020; acquired from the foregoing in partnership with Daniel W. Shogren, North Oaks, MN, June 3, 2020.
Period (not original) four-inch frame (Lowy). Reverse bears partial label of Midtown Galleries. Work accompanied by exhibition label (now detached) for Twentieth Biennial Exhibition of American Painting, Corcoran Gallery of Art (1947).
“[Zoltan] Sepeshy is a magician in paint,” wrote the venerable New York Times art critic Edward Alden Jewell in 1946, “for he paints like a benevolent angel. In water-color or gouache, in tempera, or in a fusion of media that bears the imprint of his own exploring enterprise, Sepeshy weaves mysteries at once solemn and scintillant.”* An innovative artist who was constantly experimenting, Sepeshy was at the pinnacle of his career when he produced Tonight’s Dinner in the mid-1940s.
Sepeshy’s path to artistic achievement began in his native Hungary, where he was born to well-to-do parents in 1898.** He attended the Royal Academy of Art in Budapest for four-and-a-half years before continuing his studies at the Fine Arts Academy in Vienna and in Paris. At the urging of his father, the artist emigrated to the United States in 1921, exchanging his comfortable existence for the challenges and opportunities of America. Speaking no English, he ultimately settled with an uncle in Detroit, working odd jobs in a lumberyard, painting walls and sweeping barbershop floors while continuing to paint, selling his artworks door-to-door to doctors, lawyers and other Detroit professionals from a suitcase like a traveling salesman. Sepeshy traveled extensively over the next several years, visiting New Mexico in 1923 and 1926 (where he worked with Taos artist Walter Ufer) and Europe in 1928-29. Two years later, he began his long and distinguished association with the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, first as an instructor, and subsequently as head of the Department of Painting (1936-44), Educational Director (1944-46), Director (1946-59) and President (1959-66).
Sepeshy’s work appeared in numerous solo exhibitions in New York City and beyond, including the Newhouse Galleries in 1932, the Marie Sterner Galleries (1936) and regularly thereafter at New York’s prestigious Midtown Galleries where Tonight’s Dinner likely debuted. His work routinely appeared in major national exhibitions, garnering important prizes including the I.B.M. Award at the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco in 1940, the Award of the National Academy of Arts and Letters in New York in 1946, the Carnegie Institute First Prize in 1947, and the Samuel F.B. Morse Gold Medal from the National Academy of Design in 1952. In 1949, Sepeshy was inducted (along with fellow painters Leon Kroll and Georgia O’Keeffe) into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York; Tonight’s Dinner was featured in the Academy exhibition marking the event.
The painting was most likely executed in 1945 in Frankfort, Michigan, a fishing village on Lake Michigan near the cottage on Crystal Lake where the artist and his family summered for many years. According to the artist’s son, many of the artist’s Frankfort paintings featured the fishermen and docks of Ole Olsen, whose Norwegian immigrant father had begun fishing there some sixty years earlier.*** See, for example, the major tempera painting reproduced as Fig. 1, Their Day Almost Over (Olsen’s Men), painted at about the same time as Tonight’s Dinner and acquired just a few years later by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The two figures in the central background of that work bear a striking resemblance to the figures in Tonight’s Dinner, underscoring the likely association of the subjects with the Olsen fishing operation.
Although first introduced to the medium of egg tempera painting in Budapest, Sepeshy raised it to an art form. His book, Tempera Painting (1946), became a standard reference on the subject.
Sepeshy’s mastery of the medium was extraordinary. His technique, both meticulous and time-consuming, was described in an article published in American Artist in 1944:
His pictures are built up with pure (unmixed) transparent colors stroked on with fine sable brushes, in a manner somewhat suggestive of etching or engraving. Translucent, these hues overlie one another or are juxtaposed. Colors are shaded or varied in intensity by the use of thousands of lines. If purple is desired, blue may be criss-crossed over red. The blue lines may be closely spaced to deepen their intensity, widely spaced to allow the red to dominate. This procedure is patiently followed in the rendering of every square inch of the picture and, as Sepeshy insists that the entire surface must be kept absolutely even, the difficulty of the method is apparent.****
Sepeshy’s technique eschewed the use of white pigment (except in the priming layers) in an effort to achieve “luminosity, tone and color (not pigment) depth [and] translucence of texture.” *****
Tonight’s Dinner was praised as “splendid” and “a conspicuous brush triumph” by The New York Times art critic Edward Alden Jewell upon its first appearance at Midtown Galleries in 1946.****** “It was for such meticulously higgled [sic] masterpieces of sharp delineation in the stiff tempera medium as . . . the remarkable picture of fishermen cleaning fish which is labeled Tonight’s Dinner, that Sepeshy won his reputation,” effused the art critic for the Los Angeles Times when the picture appeared in a solo exhibition in that city in 1951.******* The painting constitutes not only a textbook example of Sepeshy’s unique technique, but also the embodiment of the best of his work in the challenging medium of egg tempera.********
* The New York Times, November 24, 1946, p. 89.
** Sepeshy was born in Kassa, now Kosice in present-day Slovakia.
*** Email correspondence from Michael Sepeshy, June 8, 2020. For information on the Olsen fishing business, see Bevier, Thomas F., Images of Benzie County (Walsworth Pub. Co, 1998), pp. 170-71.
**** Watson, Ernest W., "Zoltan Sepeshy," American Artist, September, 1944, p. 8ff.
****** The New York Times, September 29, 1946, p. 74.
******* Los Angeles Times, May 6, 1951, p. 122.
******** Michael Sepeshy, son of the artist, considers this work "one of the finest examples of my father’s works in tempera ... actually in any media." Email correspondence, June 21, 2020.
Fig. 1 - Zoltan Sepeshy, Their Day Almost Over (Olsen's Men), c. 1946, egg varnish tempera with casein tempera underpainting over gesso on a tempered masonite panel, 33 x 45 inches. The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (Collections Fund, 1950.23.2). Ole Olsen is the man in suspenders left of center.