By using this website you agree to our Cookie policy

October 2022

Vol. 164 / No. 1435

The Art of Winold Reiss: An Immigrant Modernist

Reviewed by Timothy J. Standring

New-York Historical Society, 1st July–9th October 2022 


When the German-born Winold Reiss (1886–1953) arrived in New York in October 1913, the year in which the groundbreaking Armory Show took place in the city, he expected to encounter Native Americans, an interest nurtured by watching Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and reading the popular novels of Karl May and James Fenimore Cooper at an early age. To his dismay, he eventually had to travel more than two thousand miles across the continent to Montana, where he created a series of portraits of individuals of the Blackfeet Nation (officially the Blackfeet Tribe of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation). Like the American adventurer and painter George Catlin (1796–1872), Reiss’s interest in Native Americans was largely ethnographic, but he brought to his portraits a broader artistic spectrum forged during his formative years in Munich. Although Reiss’s fame today rests mostly on this series, which from 1927 appeared in the Great Northern Railway calendars distributed to the railroad’s clients, the exhibition under review, its catalogue and the informative section texts and labels help the viewer focus on a wider variety of works.[1] Four galleries cover Reiss’s formative years and influences, his iconic portraits and his multifaceted design achievements in furniture, graphic and interior design. 

By the time Reiss arrived in New York, he had created a distinctive style drawn from experiences of Jugendstil, Franz von Stuck and the Munich Secession, German Expressionism and Cubism. The works displayed in the first gallery demonstrate that Reiss, trained in fine and applied arts, was fully formed as a graphic and furniture designer as well as an artist when he landed in Manhattan to seek his fortune. As discussed by Debra Schmidt Bach in her catalogue essay, ‘Winold Reiss and the transformation of American design’, by integrating all aspects of design – furniture, exterior and interior graphic signage, and even menus – in combination with austere ornamentation, bold colours and new materials – Reiss positioned himself among other notable twentiethcentury modernists, as witnessed by the many restaurant and hotel commissions exhibited here. The display includes studies of interior designs for the Restaurant Crillon (1919; Library of Congress; cat. nos.32–34), widely considered New York’s first modern restaurant, and for the Hotel St George in Brooklyn (1930; nos.115–18), the latter for murals inspired by ancient Egypt. His mural City of the future (no.131; Fig.23), for one of the many Longchamps restaurants located throughout Manhattan between 1923 and 1952, anchors the last gallery in the show. 

The lodestone of this exhibition, however, resides in the second gallery, which features thirty-five portraits, including ones of Mexican revolutionaries, descendants of the Aztecs, individuals of the Blackfeet Nation, Asian Americans, participants in the Oberammergau Passion Play and Manhattan sophisticates, as well as members of Reiss’s family. Prominently assembled as well are his pastels of Harlem Renaissance intellectuals and Harlem residents, many of which were first exhibited in New York in 1925 at a branch of the New York Public Library on 135th Street, the first major showing of Black portraits in the city. This extraordinary gallery encapsulates Reiss’s most successful achievement as an artist. All works bear witness to his blend of commercial and fine art aesthetics, characterised by his keen attention to sitters’ physiognomy and subtle facial and hand gestures. Prime examples include that of the poet Langston Hughes (1926; National Portrait Gallery, Washington; no.100) and the sculptor Isamu Noguchi (c.1926; National Portrait Gallery; no.101), placed before backgrounds reminiscent of quasi-Cubist or Art Deco patterns that relate iconographically to their professions. In his portrait of the writer Alain Locke (no.69; Fig.22) Reiss avoided a background altogether and did not fill in the torso – something he did for many other portraits – leaving the viewer to ponder the void between the sitter’s hands and head. He revealed other modernist tendencies by clothing his figures with flat patterns, as in Girl with blanket (1924 or 1925; private collection; no.75) or outlining the entire figure as he did for The librarian (1924 or 1925; Fisk University Galleries, Nashville; no.78). 

By surveying Reiss’s fine and applied art as well as his graphic works, such as his design for the dust jacket for Ebony and Ivory by Llewelyn Powys (1923; private collection; no.64), this jewel-like exhibition fortunately suggests that the canon of American art history is still in flux. Although he merited mention in a footnote in a survey of the early history of American Modernism and was included in the text of another volume, Reiss is sadly absent from at least one forthcoming publication dealing with overlooked American artists.[2] Coincidentally and fortuitously, this exhibition and its catalogue – delayed a year because of the covid-19 pandemic – coincide with the recent publication of essays on the artist, the result of a symposium in 2011 on Reiss, held in Berlin.[3] 

Why Reiss’s critical fortune has been uneven is worth pondering. His reputation may have suffered because of his transnational status as a German immigrant arriving amid anti-German sentiment. On the other hand, it may have been because he blurred the boundaries between fine and commercial art – anathema to artistic sensibilities in New York when he arrived. Reiss was difficult to classify, as an essay from 1931 explicitly noted.[4] It is also possible that his efforts as an interior designer, graphic artist, printmaker, magazine illustrator and publisher (no.22; Fig.24) may have drawn attention away from his work as a portraitist. Few tastemakers may have appreciated the efforts of an artist from Munich to spread the gospel of Modernism in Gotham. Add to that miscellany his interest in African art as well as exposure to Neue Sachlichkeit, which he discovered during a trip to Germany in 1922, and one has a multicultural briquet igniting the cauldron of New York’s melting pot. Moreover, Reiss was hardly strait-laced. One observer commented on the singer and dancer Nora Holt traipsing around nude at a party at Reiss’s studio.[5] 

Soon enough Reiss became disillusioned with New York’s ethnic ghettos, intolerance, racial disrespect and cultural hierarchies and left the city in 1919 for a six-month trip to Mexico and the American West. His intention was to seek out ethnic authenticity in his subjects, who included descendants of the Aztecs, post-revolutionary Zapatistas and members of the Blackfeet Nation. Reiss’s deep appreciation of various ethnic groups led him to illustrate a special edition of Survey Graphic – a weekly periodical focused on such themes as industrial relations, health, education, housing and race relations – edited by Locke. Unfortunately, seventeen of Reiss’s portraits and his imaginative graphic additions were eliminated in the 1992 reprint. This was a significant loss; Reiss’s student Aaron Douglas, who went on to become the Harlem Renaissance’s most important visual artist, pronounced the images to be truthful renditions of the sitters, freed from the burden of stereotypes. 


[1] Catalogue: The Art of Winold Reiss: An Immigrant Modernist. Edited by Marilyn Satin Kushner, with contributions by C. Ford Peatross, Jeffrey C. Stewart and Debra Schmidt Bach. 192 pp. incl. 175 col. ills. (New-York Historical Society, with D Giles Limited, Lewes, 2021), £39.95. ISBN 978–1–911282–49–5. 

[2] W. Corn: The Great American Thing: Modern Art and National Identity, 1915–1935, Berkeley 1999, p.360, note 11; and F. Pohl: Framing America: A Social History of American Art, London and New York 2012, pp.40 and 374–75. See also C.C. Eldredge, ed.: The Unforgettables: Expanding the History of American Art, Berkeley 2023 (forthcoming). 

[3] F. Mehring, ed.: The Multicultural Modernism of Winold Reiss (1886–1953): (Trans)National Approaches to His Work, Berlin 2022. 

[4] P.W. Sampson: ‘A modern Cellini – Winold Reiss’, The Du Pont Magazine 25 (March 1931), pp.4–6, at p.5, available at https://www. will-not-be-classified, accessed 6th September 2022; see also the exhibition Winold Reiss Will Not be Classified at Hirschl & Adler, New York (12th April–8th June 2018). 

[5] E. Bernard: Carl van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance: A Portrait in Black and White, New Haven and London 2013, pp.292–93.