Distinguished as a painter and teacher, Ivan Olinsky is best known for portraits and images of female figures in interiors, which he rendered in a vivid Impressionist style. Often he showed figures who appear to blend in with floral backgrounds, demonstrating a decorative approach similar to that used by Robert Reid and Frederick Frieseke. Like Reid and Frieseke, Olinsky complied with the taste for depictions of attractive, pensive women, but he also captured the individuality of his subjects, conveying their intelligence and strength of character.
The son of a farmer, Olinsky was born in an agricultural part of Ukraine and grew up in Elizabethgrad, Russia, a town near Odessa. Having begun to draw before his family settled in Elizabethgrad, he was sufficiently talented to study drawing at the university when he was only nine or ten years old--most of his classmates were twice his age. When he was twelve, his family emigrated to New York City, settling on Henry Street in lower Manhattan. In New York, Olinsky initially attended public school, but when he heard about the National Academy of Design, he was determined to attend. On the basis of a drawing of an antique sculpture that he submitted, he was able to enroll in 1894, when he was sixteen. At the Academy, he initially enrolled in the antique class, but quickly advanced to the life class. His teachers included Francis Coates Jones, Edgar Melville Ward, Charles Yardley Turner, and George Willoughby Maynard.
At the conclusion of his studies at the Academy, Olinsky assisted Maynard, an important mural painter, with decorative commissions. Through Maynard, Olinsky met Elmer E. Garnsey, who had a firm on Park Avenue that specialized in decorative work for public buildings. Garnsey, in turn, introduced Olinsky to John La Farge, who hired him as a studio assistant. Olinsky worked with La Farge on mural commissions for the Supreme Court Room of the Minnesota Capital and for the Baltimore Courthouse. He also assisted La Farge with designs for stained glass windows.
Although Olinsky craved a career of his own, he continued to work for La Farge until 1906, when he left for Europe with his wife, Genevieve Karfunkle, the sister of a fellow student from the Academy, who he had married in 1904. While living in Venice from 1906 until 1909, he created small scale spontaneously rendered street scenes. In 1907, his daughter Leonore was born. His second daughter, Tosca, arrived two years later, around the time that the artist and his family moved to Paris. In the French capital, Olinsky established a studio and studied masterpieces at the Louvre and the Luxembourg museum. He also spent time in the Normandy town of Vernon, where he began to concentrate on the figure.
Olinsky returned to New York with his family in 1910 and set up a studio at Washington Square, where portraiture became his emphasis. At first, he painted his wife and daughters, but soon, he was flooded with commissions. By 1912, he was supplementing his income from portraits by teaching at the Academy, where, two years later, he was elected an associate member and awarded the Thomas B. Clarke Prize in its annual exhibition. He gained full membership in the Academy in 1919. He also taught at the Art Students League.
In addition to painting portraits for his living, Olinsky created paintings of figural subjects for exhibition. Often depicting attractive women, he demonstrated his skills at modeling with color and treating three-dimensional form in a convincing fashion. Critics remarked on his skills, admiring “the dash and verve that all his things have,” and commenting that “his color modelling and surety of line have made him known everywhere.”
During the 1920s, Olinsky experimented with new approaches such as showing figures against translucent curtains or in front of mirrors. His style became progressively simpler, however, and by the late 1920s, his works were characterized by spare compositions in which abstract values are accentuated. In the 1930s, he continued to create minimalist designs. The portraits he executed during the decade show women who exude the energetic spirit associated with modern city life. Olinsky also explored symbolic portrayals, depicting a few images entitled “Madonna,” one of which featured his daughter Leonore. During the 1940s and 1950s, Olinsky continued to portray women, at times showing subjects engaged in reverie and at other times depicting confident subjects dressed in the casual attire typical of their time.
An impeccable craftsman, Olinsky created works that not only captured the realities of his subjects, but also expressed his enthusiasm for them. Although his art received considerable attention from the press during his lifetime, there were no articles or critical reviews devoted to him. His achievement was recognized by a memorial exhibition at the Art Students League in 1962, but it was not until 1995, that it was given scholarly attention, when an exhibition accompanied by a catalogue was held at The William Benton Museum of Art at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, and at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Connecticut.
Olinsky’s work may be found in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago; the Art Students League, New York; the Brooklyn Museum; the Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio; the Chrysler Museum, Norfolk, Virginia; the Dayton Art Institute, Ohio; the Everhart Museum, Scranton, Pennsylvania; the Florence Griswold Museum, Old Lyme, Connecticut; the Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company, Hartford, Connecticut; the Hood Museum, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire; the Lyman Allyn Art Museum, New London, Connecticut; the Memorial Art Gallery, Rochester, New York; the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minnesota; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the National Academy of Design, New York; the National Arts Club, New York; and the New Britain Museum of American Art, Connecticut.
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