Working within the gritty and near-apocalyptic style of the Ashcan School, Paul Raphael Meltsner captures the shimmying decadence of movement that defined Depression-era burlesque, as well as the art forms manner of dehumanizing both performer and patron. Though brazenly showcasing her human form, the dancer in the foreground hides her face from the canvas, and the audience recedes into the merest suggestion of faces represented merely as forms. This is a moving and masterful artwork, reminiscent of the works of Everett Shinn, a contemporary of Meltsner’s.
Burlesque and modernism developed hand in hand in gritty, ethnically diverse New York City. The sensationalism and pathos of the bump and grind attracted the attention of writers like E.E. Cummings, who first attracted notice for poems he published in 1920’s Dial magazine, alongside four line drawings of stripteasers. By the depression-era 1930s, WPA regionalists and social realists had taken notice of vaudeville and burlesque as well, using the metaphor of the striptease to stand in for the injustices the American working-class was forced to endure to eke out survival. Those themes resonate deeply within The Faceless Crowd.
Artwork is framed in dramatic gallery frame, and the tight economic times of the Great Depression can be seen even on the verso of the canvas, on which a quick sketch for a different artwork appears.
Paul Raphael Meltsner was born in New York City in 1905. A native New Yorker, Mr. Meltsner attended Flushing High School and graduated in 1922. He became closely associated with the WPA, enjoying the support given artists during the Great Depression and in 1938 a New York City gallery offered him a one-man exhibition.
Mr. Meltsner is well known for his his industrial scenes depicting urban scenes and in the mid 1930’s he expanded his genre and began to paint portraits of actors and performers including Carmen Miranda, Lynn Fontanne, Martha Graham, Dorothy Stickney and Gertrude Lawrence.
His work is included in major museum collections across the country including The National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.; The Museum of Modern Art, New York and The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. His work was also exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the Art Institute of Chicago.
Paul Meltsner left his downtown New York studio to get away from the “tensions” of the city and moved to Woodstock, New York. There in his backwoods barn-studio he lived without a phone and a car.
A single painting of Meltsner’s- a portrait of Albert Einstein-caused a million dollars’ worth of war bonds to be sold in 1943 in Hollywood. A group of his paintings were auctioned off for $3 million worth of bonds during the drive. In 1957, the largest price ever paid for a Meltsner painting was the one for the Einstein portrait, the smallest was for Paul’s first sale, made when he was eight years old. The buyer was the government of Palestine and the price was $25. The artist explains, “I honestly don’t remember what the picture was, though I think it was a drawing of books or something.”
“Much of Meltsner’s earlier life was mixed with theatre and backstage life. His drawings of on-stage activities have been featured in the New York press. His theatrical studies of the key personalities brought him into contact with their producers and directors while his results brought him friendships with the drama and art critics. All have been lavish with their praise- and their purses (Gilbert).”