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Like an Old Master, Taubes Makes His Own Paints
LIFE Magazine, January 1940

“If Titian walked into my studio today,” says Frederic Taubes proudly, “he would feel at home. He would see me grinding and mixing my paints exactly as he did 400 years ago.

Frederic Taubes’ pride in carrying on the craftsmanship of the great Renaissance artists has lifted him to the top rank of American painters.
Last month the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York purchased his portrait of Mrs. Taubes.

This month his works are being shown simultaneously at New York’s Midtown Galleries and Philadelphia’s Art Alliance. And his Birth of a Nation, painted especially for LIFE’s modern-history series, is reproduced in color on pages 40-41.”

Visitors to Frederic Taubes’ studio in New York are likely to find him bending over a gas burner, melting down chunks of resin in a tin can. To make his own varnishes, Taubes buys copal from Zanzibar, gum dammar from Borneo and Sumatra, mastic from the Greek island of Chios and turpentine from North Carolina. Full of spicy fragrance, his studio smells like an alchemist’s shop. Once in a while his boiling resins explode.

Powdered pigments, which are later mixed with oil, are stored on shelves in a rainbow of glass jars. In the corner are piles of raw canvas, which Taubes prepares himself by coating it with a chalk emulsion to give a smooth painting surface. In a week he prepares enough paint and canvas to last a year, at one fifth the ready made cost.


Making his own materials, Taubes claims, inspires him with great reverence for his art, puts him in the mood for painting. He teaches his craft to a dozen private students who work together in Taubes’ small one room studio, having a wonderful time mixing and brewing.

Short, neat, and enthusiastic, Taubes was born 39 years ago in Poland, has interrupted his career to be a sign painter, patent salesman and a guide for skiing parties in Switzerland. He has painted in the Orient and Africa, has held shows from Jerusalem to Kansas City. Ten years ago he moved to America. Strangely, for all his travel, Taubes’ canvases reflect a poetic world in his own mind. Even prosaic objects in his still lifes glow supernaturally. His reds ring out like a chime.

In spite if his careful preparation, Artist Taubes admits that his works, like nearly all oil paintings, will darken in 400 years. “But if anybody complains then,” he says cheerfully, “they can sue me.”

Summer Evening and Studio Interior
by Frederic Taubes

Summer Evening, painted by Frederic Taubes in his studio, conveys his general impression of a trip through Nevada last summer. He describes it as “a trip through geology” where the people beneath the vast sky “seemed crushed by the weight of space.” Scattered over the scene are strange geological formations called “stacks,” produced by wind blowing around the mesas, grinding them down to their present cone-like shapes. His swiftly painted clouds and crippled tree also tell of the wind’s work. Taubes suffuses his scene with an unearthly blue light because he says it suggested to him a landscape on the moon.


Studio Interior is a unique combination of still-life and figure painting, enlivened by sharp lights and shadows, and by Frederic Taubes’ free, speedy brushwork. On the table is a bottle of oil and a can of turpentine for mixing paints, and a pestle for grinding pigments.

The lady in the pink sweater is Mrs. Taubes, while the nude figure is a professional model. Taubes used her for preliminary sketches, but did the actual painting without a model. The figure in blue (right) is a wooden manikin which Taubes keeps for studies in drapery. He says, “She is a wonderful model because she never talks back.”
“The Birth of a Nation” is filmed by Griffith
A Painting for LIFE by Frederic Taubes
When the history of American culture is finally written, the man with the megaphone in this painting for LIFE by Frederic Taubes will play a major part in it. His name is David Wark Griffith. The time was January, 1915. The place was San Fernando Valley, Calif. The occasion was one which, a few months later, was to arouse storms of protest and delight, hasten the creation of a gigantic new industry, bring of age the world’s most potent art. With that megaphone David Wark Griffith was directing The Birth of a Nation.

On this calm California morning Griffith was less concerned with history’s verdict than with the almost insuperable obstacles in his way. It was wartime. Horses were at a premium and cotton sheeting for his Clansmen (right) hard to get. His business associates were alarmed at the unheard-of time he had consumed in rehearsals and shooting-four months in all- and at the “recklessness” of his expenditures. He had run out of money. He was hounded by creditors. He had already spent $65,000 — a fantastic sum in those days for a “nickel show”- and would have to suspend production to beg friend and foe for $45,000 more. On this day he probably could not even pay the 500 extras, at $3 a head, for the Civil War battle in the valley.

With a singleness of purpose born of stupendous ambition, Griffith remained unperturbed. He arrived on location at 3 a.m. to get a full day’s sun. With him were Billy Bitzer, his cameraman (at camera), Raoul Walsh, his assistant (below camera), Henry Walthall, “the little Confederate colonel” of his story, and Lillian Gish, his fragile carpetbagger heroine (both seated). Significantly, there were no grips, no electricians, no script girl, not even a script.

The outline of his story clear in mind, Griffith improvised as he went along. For one spectacular scene of Southern armies marching, he had extras go past the camera, run back to the end of the line and march past the camera again. Even Miss Gish was an improvisation of a sort, but Griffith had cast this young girl in the lead after one look at her long blond hair and her pale, wistful face.

By February 1915, the picture was finished. Into this dramatization of Thomas Dixon’s novel, The Clansman, Griffith had thrown all the mastery of movie technique acquired in pioneer days with Biograph and Mutual. For six years he had ground out, sometimes at the rate of one a week, hundreds of one- and two-reel thrillers for the nickelodeons then spotting the country.

At first, the young director, aspiring to be an author, had been so ashamed of his trade that he hid under the assumed name of Lawrence Griffith. But crude though these early “flickers” were, Griffith learned from them, by trial and error, the language of the camera. He introduced or developed such revolutionary devices (now everywhere accepted) as the close-up, the moving camera shot, the fade-out and cut-back, originally called “the Griffith last minute rescue.” With these he had liberated the movie from its one-camera position paralysis, had endowed it with freedom, movement, and suspense.

Now he edited his newest work with an ingenuity never before known, gave it such timing, speed, surprise and impact as the world had never seen. Friends and foes still demurred. The film was twelve reels long- “a frightful waste and audacious monstrosity.” It cost $110,000, could therefore “not possibly make any money.” Distributors raised their hands in horror. Griffith had to distribute it himself.

On March 3, 1915 he released it in the Liberty Theater, New York. For the first time in history an American film ran in a regular theater at a $2 top and in the White House at a command performance.President Woodrow Wilson said it was “like writing history with lightening.”

Vachel Lindsey, the poet, praised scenes tossing wildly and rhythmically like the sea.” Oswald Garrison Villard, the liberal, condemned its “deliberate attempt to humiliate ten million American (Negro) citizens.” In Boston and other cities, its appearance was the signal for race riots. But before the power of its artistry and the grandeur of its scope, critics and public alike were unanimous in praise. Overnight the American movie had come into its own.

From that day until this, The Birth of a Nation has been repeatedly shown. It has grossed $16,000,000 making it one of the great money makers of all time. Griffith, crushed by debts, sold it outright and only cleared $100,000. He lost even that on his next great picture, Intolerance (1916), recouped fame if not fortune with Broken Blossoms (1919), then lapsed into decline.

Today, as he collaborates with Hal Roach on 1,000,000 B.C., his first film in nearly ten years, he is revered as “the old master” of the cinema, whose technique set the pace for a quarter-century of movie making, whose mob and battle scenes have never been surpassed, whose vision made of the lowly “nickel show” the world’s most popular art.

In this January

1940  issue,

LIFE Magazine published a profile of Frederic Taubes and his work

LIFE
Magazine
Feature Article
Frederic
Taubes

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