I lay on the surface moving quietly through the clear shallows in 3 to 5 feet of water. Something caught my eye, and I swung my head to the left and heard my breath in the snorkel. It was nothing, a cloud shadow moving on the bottom. Still, I knew that somewhere along the barrier beach striped bass were feeding on mole crabs in water as shallow as knee-deep.
As I straightened my head, a lovely sand-colored fish sailed across my line of sight, headed seaward. I pivoted and watched it disappear in the greenish sunlit waters and thought of Stanley Meltzoff, the great fish painter who many years ago taught me to see beneath the surface.
A pioneering artist in portraying fish underwater, Meltzoff and I shared an affection for striped bass. A number of years ago he told me how he’d position himself underwater to visually ambush stripers. (Meltzoff also was an accomplished spear fisherman.) And he described how the brain works to pick out a fish even when visibility is poor, as it often is in the summer in the Northeast, when clouds of suspended sand, weed and pulverized shells obscure the view. Meltzoff described those conditions as being like driving at night without headlights.
Amid the foam and murk, all the mind needs is a couple of visual clues. You catch a glimpse of a few stripes or the sweep of a tail and the brain does the rest, completing the image based on our understanding of what it should see. “All of a sudden,” Meltzoff told me, “a bass leaps into sight.” He was right.
Meltzoff, who died in 2006 at age 89, moved far beyond the striped bass and bluefish of his youth. He painted giant bluefin tuna, marlin, sailfish and sharks. And he loved the play of light on the flats, where he captured permit, bonefish and their cohorts.
A strong, skilled diver, he was one of the first to observe a blue marlin beneath the sea, along the 100-fathom line. And he got the rare opportunity in the 1970s to dive and observe giant bluefin tuna impounded in large nets off Prince Edward Island.
Stanley Meltzoff was a bright, complex man, a perfectionist with a deep intellectual curiosity. “Talking to him was like talking to a precocious 16-year-old; he was that lively and mentally sharp,” says J. Russell Jinishian, a leading authority on contemporary marine and sporting art. “These characteristics manifested themselves in his artwork.”
Meltzoff not only mastered his craft, but he also was conversant with art history and the historical context in which he was working, says Jinishian, who owns the J. Russell Jinishian Gallery in Fairfield, Conn., the primary representative of Meltzoff’s works (www.jrusselljinishiangallery.com).
“He was a brilliant intellect, to the point of often being abstruse,” says Mike Rivkin, a longtime California angler who co-authored, edited and published “Stanley Meltzoff — Picture Maker,” the definitive book on the life and works of the artist (www.silverfishpress.com). “Stanley wrote one book that is virtually unreadable without an advanced degree in art history. He could be extremely gracious but was not above ‘playing the genius card,’ as his daughter would say, deliberately talking over the head of someone he didn’t consider his equal. Not surprisingly, he was also a perfectionist, once taking a jigsaw and cutting in half a perfectly gorgeous painting of bluefin tuna that he had just finished, having decided that the tonality of the painting wasn’t quite right.
“To describe Stanley as a complicated personality,” Rivkin says, “would be an understatement.”
Although Meltzoff was the first to really paint fish as they appear in their environment, the artist, remarkably, didn’t start that phase of his career until he was in his late 50s after a successful career as a magazine illustrator. The magazine industry underwent one of its sea changes, and new technology such as color photography and software that could manipulate photos spelled the end of his career as an illustrator.
“My wife was ill, my children needed college money, and I was almost 60 years old,” Meltzoff writes in “Picture Maker.” “I stood on the corner of 56th Street and Lexington Avenue in the rain with a soggy portfolio in my hands and improvised a sad little song about defeat, flat feet and flat broke while I tried to think of something to do.”
He went on to find a fresh way to reinterpret the undersea world, combining his love for diving and fish with his skill as an artist. “It wasn’t enough for him to paint something that just looked like a fish or a piece of coral,” Jinishian says. “He literally painted it inch by unique inch to give a strikingly three-dimensional illusion of form, color and light. His re-creation of the effects of light underwater may even have been his greatest accomplishment — from light on the surface as seen from below to subtle shadings and changes as light penetrated the depths. Until the real development of advanced underwater photography, no one had ever seen the underwater world quite so vividly.”
Rivkin says Meltzoff was a “salmagundi” of several elements: supreme natural talent, classical training as an artist and illustrator, and thousands of hours spent underwater, observing his subjects.
“His unique talent was in elevating sporting art to the level of fine art,” says Rivkin, who became friends with Meltzoff as he helped the painter complete the book that he started before his death. “He did sketches and studies for almost all his major pictures, resolving issues of color and composition before taking up with a larger canvas. The results were paintings of such detail and complexity that nobody even attempts that kind of work today. A thousand years from now, Stanley’s work will still be art.”