Drawing From Life: Meet America's Top Pastel Artist, Daniel Greene

Daniel Greene’s soaring studio occupies the upper half of an old gambrel-roofed dairy barn in North Salem. Greene, who was relocating after three decades in Manhattan, recalls the first time he saw the property, which he bought in 1980. “I knew immediately it was large enough to accommodate my classes and work as my studio,” says the acclaimed portrait artist.

The litmus test was the light. Praying that the barn faced north, he took a compass out of his pocket: The needle pointed northeast. After buying the property, Greene named it Studio Hill Farm. He blocked up some windows and built skylights to let more of that cool, constant north light spill onto his canvases. “That’s the kind of light painters have been using for centuries,” he says.

At 84, Greene has been painting professionally for more than six decades, attaining a level of success and renown few artists could envision. A practitioner of what he calls “classical painting — representational as opposed to abstract,” Greene has won countless accolades and his work hangs in 700 collections around the world. He is a member of the halls of fame for both pastels and oil painting, as well as the prestigious National Academy of Design. His sitters include monumental figures who range from Eleanor Roosevelt and author Ayn Rand to William Randolph Hearst.

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Greene has also taught more than 10,000 students in person and another 100,000 or so through his instructional videos and books, which have been translated into several languages, including Chinese and Farsi. If there’s an award or accolade involved, there’s a good chance he has it, with works that can sell in the six figures. On the new coffee-table book of his work, a subtitle reads An American Master, but does Greene think of himself as one? After a pause, he nods: “That’s a reasonable description.”

His confidence is justified. “Daniel is America’s top pastel artist. He gets color tones nobody else gets,” says George Henoch Shechtman, who sells Greene’s work at Gallery Henoch in Manhattan. “He’s one of a kind — a strong personality and a strong man.”

Greene’s studio is the quintessential creative space, filled with tables of pigments, cans of brushes, canvasses, and pastels. Many of his paintings hang up high and down low, as in a Parisian atelier. These are his favorites or ones that “haven’t found a home yet.” The work represents the phases and interests of his life. Carnival scenes and vintage game boards, which appear as props or backgrounds, remind him of his childhood in Cincinnati, where he was born, in 1934, and quickly displayed a talent for drawing. An early, atmospheric work titled Paddy’s Pool Room evokes his teenage years, when he made money by playing billiards.

Greene dropped out of high school to pursue his calling as an artist, sketching tourists in Miami Beach and Atlantic City before landing in New York City. He lived in Greenwich Village during the bohemian ’60s and studied at the Art Students League, where he’d eventually become a teacher.

A large painting leans against the stair railing, representing Greene’s new obsession with Christie’s auction house. It shows several people holding catalogues, with a hand that enters from frame right, placing a bid. The people are Greene’s friends, many of whom are Westchester residents. “There’s a lot of drama at auctions. That’s fodder for painting.” In another of this series, an auction worker stands holding a decorative bowl against an antique rug, the intricate designs of both executed with breathtaking realism.

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Art critic and poet Maureen Bloomfield, Greene’s collaborator on the new book of his work, writes that he “loves complexity: patterns, juxtapositions, counterpoint….Greene sets up a challenge that will allow him to demonstrate his skill, and he does it all not with steely-eyed determination, but with gusto and joy.”

Such attention to detail and visual play is “laborious, but he loves it,” says Greene’s wife, artist Wende Caporale. A well-known portraitist and sculptor, she met Greene in his studio in the summer of 1981, when she took one of his popular classes. Lately, she’s been working on a bust of her husband. She started it in the family room: “Since I’m working from life, that’s where I can catch him, watching baseball games.” (Greene remains a devout Cincinnati Reds fan.) To finish it, she moved it up to his studio, underneath the skylights. “He was working in the barn, and I was working on the back of his head. I’m trying to finish up his hair,” says Caporale.

Greene no longer teaches, but “he has no intention of retiring [from painting],” says Caporale. “He works every day.” As proof, a portrait in progress sits on an easel in the area where he works with pastels. Throughout his career, Greene has painted hundreds of portrait commissions, from astronauts and academics to jurists and captains of industry. Subjects include household names such as newsman Bryant Gumbel, composer Alan Menken, and Dave Thomas, founder of Wendy’s restaurants. One of his most challenging subjects was his friend, writer Ayn Rand, because she questioned every brush stroke. “She was very controversial, very opinionated. We got along.”

In the late ’50s, Greene visited his sister at Brandeis University, near Boston, to hear Eleanor Roosevelt speak. “Of course, I took my drawing stuff.” He deftly rendered the former first lady in pastels while she was waiting to take the lectern. McCall’s magazine ran the portrait when Roosevelt died in 1962. “That gave me national exposure,” says Greene.

Around that time, he signed with Portraits, Inc., which matches artists with clients. “Daniel is one of greatest portrait painters of our time,” says Beverly McNeil, an owner of Portraits, Inc. “When Dan does a portrait, you know it’s going to be right and that he will do a magnificent job. He rises to the top.”

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He also thrives in the underground. As an art student riding the New York City subway in the ’50s, Greene admired the striking mosaic station signs created in the early 20th century. Decades later, on their honeymoon in Europe, he and his wife saw ancient mosaics in Rome and Pompeii that jarred that old memory loose. When they returned, “I went into the subway expressly to do one picture: people sitting under the mosaic at a subway stop. I found there were so many interesting things to paint that it became a series.”

While Greene does rapid studies and takes photos in the subway, he completes the paintings in his North Salem studio, using models. “That way they can pose for me under controlled light, and I put the appropriate backgrounds behind them.” So far, his Subway Series exceeds 120 paintings. “I’m still doing them. It’s a terrific subject.”

This reconstruction of reality applies to his other work. One complex painting titled Hit the Red shows a man at a booth holding baseballs in a carnival game. A mime in a cage behind him adds a surreal element. Greene constructed the set and cast the models.

Everyone can get a good look at the scope and breadth of this American master’s oeuvre in the new coffee-table book, Daniel E. Greene, Studios and Subways. (The “E” stands for Eugene). He has a major retrospective at the Mattatuck Museum, in Waterbury, CT, in September and recently completed one at the Butler Institute of American Art, in Youngstown, Ohio.

And the work goes on, usually several paintings at once, working up to six solitary hours a day. “Painting doesn’t require anyone else to provide a sense of fulfillment,” Greene says. “It’s something you do entirely on your own.”

Dana White studied art in school and quickly turned to writing. She lives in Ossining and is a frequent contributer to Westchester Magazine.

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