The Handshake Interview with Sam Rosenthal
by Jacob Singer / Art by Sam Rosenthal
The first time I saw a Sam Rosenthal painting was in an antique furniture store. The painting was called Noble Square—a depiction of a brilliant wet and snowy night at the corner of Division and Ashland in Chicago. The canvas overwhelmed me with its size and beauty. It was four feet tall by twelve feet across. The road glimmered with reflected light from the streetlamps, and with the exception of one white car, the image was devoid of humans. I asked the store manager about the painting and the painter. Why had I never heard of him, and why was there so little about him on the internet?
One month later, I had the opportunity to interview Sam. He invited me to meet him at Whole Foods on Roosevelt, where we talked for an hour before I watched him paint the railroad tracks on the south side of the Roosevelt Bridge.
As Sam worked, people approached him and his work. A bicyclist stopped, looked at the canvas, and paid his compliments. A hairstylist wanted to know if she could buy one of his pieces for her shop; they exchanged cards. Sam made small talk with everyone and was very polite. I felt privileged to watch a unique moment between the artist and his audience, an unexpected audience that stumbles into a “studio,” and finds a piece of museum-quality work being completed. –Jacob Singer
The Handshake: When did you want to become an artist?
Sam Rosenthal: In fifth grade I got Jack Hamm’s Cartooning the Head and Figure, which taught me how to draw eyes and noses so I could create my own comics. The following summer I started taking the train down to the Art Institute for courses. In high school, many of my classmates were getting into various drugs and I figured, “If you can’t join them, beat them!” So I decided that I would be the best painter at school. And by my senior year I was the best. Well, if not “the best,” at least I was “one of the best.”
Between my junior and senior year, I found out about the American Academy of Art, which was a really good school for impressionistic-realism and illustration, which is what I thought I wanted to do. So in 1987, I took a Saturday class, and it turned out about half of the students there were the best artists at their high school. I was humbled, but it also made me work harder.
HS: I’m interested in your time in art school. What did you learn as a student? What can be taught to a student about painting?
SR: My mom said I had to go to college for at least two years, so I went to Washington University in Saint Louis and was an art major. That lasted for about two weeks. My professors told me to draw happy lines, angry lines, sad lines, and a bunch of worthless stuff. I knew that it would be worse to develop bad habits than do nothing, so I ended up getting a liberal arts degree in Sociology. The whole time I was sketching. I used the library a lot—not only to cram for exams but to study art and artists. I ended up graduating in two-and-a-half years.
College art programs are all into the creative spirit and not into learning and applying craft. Basically, they believe that practical information inhibits creativity, which is ridiculous. You can’t learn to write if you don’t learn to form sentences and paragraphs. It can’t just be theorizing about painting. You really need practical skills. Ability inspires and facilitates creativity.
That’s why I returned to the American Academy in ’90, but the school was no longer so great. Many of the good students were going to the Palette and Chisel. So while I was at the Academy, I was also spending about nine hours a day at Palette. They had live models for six to nine hours a day, and it cost around $240 a year, which was an amazing deal. At that time, Richard Schmid—who had a strong following—and his protégés told me to study at the Lyme Academy of Fine Arts in Connecticut. So for two years I studied drawing anatomy, sculpture, and painting at Lyme. By then, I was painting everything—landscapes, still lifes, anything I saw would be recreated on canvas.
From there I went to the Bougie Studio in Minneapolis. There I did a bust of Homer that took about 200 hours to complete. I really pushed myself further than I could have anywhere else. I really learned how to train my eye and hand. I realized that I could always take it further. It’s never perfect.