A few weeks ago I was contacted through my blog by someone who wanted to know if I might be interested in a painting by Ira Schnapp. He had been researching the name and found one of my many blog posts about Ira. I emailed him and said I’d like to know more. He replied with this photo and wrote:
I am a part-time antique dealer and found this lovely painting of his in an upstate New York estate sale. Please let me know if you are interested. Thanks.
I knew that Ira had done some painting after talking to his son Marty in 2015. He was located with the help of my research partner, Alex Jay. Marty and his wife lived in a small apartment in Manhattan. He was still working part time as a consultant for Burlington Coat Factory after a long career in the clothing business, and he and his wife Pam were delighted to hear from me about Marty’s father Ira. I interviewed Marty on the phone a few times, and was able to visit him briefly in his apartment where he showed me the first photo I had ever seen of Ira, the one that’s in my blog posts about Ira’s life and work, and is now available to use freely on Wikipedia HERE and HERE. Marty helped me achieve that.
In my conversations with Marty, he told me:
Ira was very quiet at home. Very soft-spoken. I don’t think he had any real hobbies. He did painting and things like that. I don’t recall him ever selling any.
Marty was not interested in art growing up, so he didn’t know or remember much about Ira’s work, unfortunately. Marty said Ira was a loving father, but Marty was into sports and Ira was not, so they didn’t spend a lot of activity time together. It’s interesting that Marty didn’t consider Ira’s painting a hobby, but I think it certainly was one, especially if he wasn’t selling them. Marty also talked to me about his sister Theresa (Teddy), who died in 2009 after living alone for many years, and Marty and Pam had to dispose of most of her belongings. I asked if there were any works by Ira, and Marty said there was one large painting, but there was no room for it in Marty and Pam’s small apartment, so they gave it away.
I contacted the antiques dealer, and he was asking a reasonable price for the painting, and would mail it framed by priority mail for his price. I agreed, and we worked out a payment method. The painting arrived safely, and I took it out of the original frame to get a better look at it and photograph it. Above is the full painting, done in pastels on thick textured art paper or illustration board about 1/16 inch thick, and stiff like cardboard. The paper may have begun with a gray color, which seems like a good choice for pastels, but I think the spotting in slightly darker gray is from age. There’s also damage on the edges from the original matte where it stuck to the art paper. Despite all that, the pastels still look great, fresh and colorful as if they were put down yesterday.
Here’s a closer look at the ballet dancer’s upper body, and you can see more of the pastel technique, which I think is quite good.
The signature seems to have been done with one of Ira’s lettering pens, and the picture is helpfully dated 1954. Ira was working in the DC offices then much of the time, but probably also doing lettering at home.
The painting seems to be in the style of pastel work by French artist Edgar Degas (1834 – 1917), who was famous for his ballet dancer portraits in pastel, oils and even a sculpture. I’ve searched online, but I can’t find any Degas image that comes very close to Ira’s painting as far as the pose and subject, though many are somewhat similar, like the one above. The costume in Ira’s work seems more modern somehow, and I wondered if Ira might have used a photo of his daughter Teddy as his model. I was excited to have the painting, and I wanted to try to get in touch with Marty to show it to him.
Sadly, his email account was no longer valid, and some research found that Marty had passed on April 8, 2020, at the age of ninety. I hadn’t been in touch with him for a few years, but at his age the news was not very surprising. I am consoled by the fact that Marty seemed happy when we spoke, and said he had had a good life. I further found that Marty’s wife Pam had passed in 2018. I never met her in person, but she was there for our phone interviews, and I enjoyed speaking with her.
I knew that Pam and Marty had a son, Jonathan, and searching on the internet, I was able to find a phone number for him. These things are often wrong or outdated, but I tried the number, and Jonathan answered! It was the same kind of good luck I had with Marty. Jonathan was happy to hear from me, he knew who I was from hearing his father talk about me, Alex Jay, and Arlen Schumer. We had all attended the show about Ira and his work that Arlen had put together at the Type Director’s club in Manhattan, more on that HERE with lots of photos. Jonathan and I talked some about the sad news of his parents’ passing, and I told him about the painting I’d found. I emailed him images of it, and asked if he knew if Teddy had ever taken ballet lessons, and if he thought she might have been the subject, though from the few photos I have of Teddy, above, I didn’t think the face looked like her. Jonathan wrote:
Teddy might have taken dance or ballet classes as a teen but I don’t recall her ever mentioning anything to me. I will look through some old photo books and keep you posted and send you a few photos of Teddy. All of your research brings much joy and happiness to me knowing more about my grandfather. I also have stored some of his paintings and have never seen a ballerina photo. The more I think about it, it makes sense. I’ll certainly see if I can find any hints on my aunts hobbies.
That’s inconclusive, but it does leave the door open to the pose and costume possibly being Teddy Schnapp. As I said, online searches haven’t turned up any very similar ones by Degas, but there could be one I haven’t found. Or Ira could have been using a photo of a ballerina from a magazine instead. Jonathan hasn’t had a chance yet to send me more pictures of Teddy, but if he does, I will add some here.
After learning of the Schnapp pastel, I did a search for Ira Schnapp paintings online, and came up with images of another one that had sold at auction a few years ago. This was a much larger oil painting, and it’s a copy by Ira of a 1755 oil by François Boucher titled “Winter,” part of a series on the four seasons, and owned by the Fricke Collection in Manhattan. The Fricke is at 5th Avenue and 70th Street, not far from Ira’s apartment on West 110th Street in 1947 (and for many years), so perhaps he was able to get permission to set up an easel there and copy the original painting. Or, it might also have been copied from a printed reproduction. The Schnapp signature is block letters done with a brush, and not unlike some of Ira’s lettering.
Here’s an image of the original painting. As you can see, it was done to fit an unusual shape, perhaps a frame of that shape, and in Ira’s version he’s filled out the corners, adding his signature in the lower right corner. I don’t think Ira’s version is as skillful as the original, but it’s not bad. I also showed those images from the auction to Jonathan, and he told me that painting hung in his living room when he was growing up, and he was glad to see it again. I think that was when Marty and Pam were living in a larger home in New Jersey, perhaps they sold it when they moved to their small Manhattan apartment.
We know that Ira was interested in fine art because in the late 1930s, he prepared a series of newspaper features about artists and their work titled “Art of the Ages.” I’ve written much more about that HERE. I think Ira’s reproductions of famous paintings and sculptures, and also portraits of the artists like the one above for his articles show that interest, even if the crude reproduction needed for newsprint is not always very effective. I can certainly see him wanting to do paintings himself, and also copying work by the masters. Ira’s signature in that clipping is one of the few examples we have from him.
There’s a better Ira signature on this postcard that he did for young writer Pat McGreal when he was taking a tour of the DC offices in 1964. This one is similar to the signature on the ballerina painting above. There’s no doubt in my mind that the two paintings are by our Ira Schnapp, and I think it’s quite possible that others might turn up on the market. I’m also hoping that Ira’s grandson Jonathan will be able to send me images of the paintings he has in storage someday. If any new Schnapp paintings come to my attention, I will write about them.