Costin Petrescu: In Search of the American Works of a Romanian Painter
Updated: Oct 24, 2020
Romanian cultural life paced out of a scarring WWI with vigor and determination. The unification of all Romanian provinces in 1918 unleashed tremendous societal energies and led to an increased international interest in the newly created state. Literature, art, social life thrived in the interwar years, which ushered an unparalleled internationalization and revamping of Romanian culture.
In 1919, Romanian painter and academic Costin Petrescu (1872-1954) was sent on an official mission to New York by the Romanian government. His mission was to supervise the printing of the new Romanian bills at The American Bank Note Company, which he himself had designed. A monetary unification, following the political one, was imperative in the new Romania emerging at the end of WWI. Costin Petrescu was not only the designer of the new Romanian banknotes but also an accomplished painter and art academic. He had a remarkable talent for symbols, and in 1922 was tasked with the creation of the new state’s emblems as well as with the Byzantine-style attires which King Ferdinand and Queen Marie wore at their coronation as the sovereigns of Greater Romania. He was also invited to paint the cathedral fresco of the Coronation Cathedral in Alba-Iulia.
Petrescu’s trip to the U.S. was at once symbolic, official, and practical. During the four months he spent in New York (mid-November 1919 – mid-March 1920) he immersed himself in the most exquisite and exclusivist art circles and, as many of his generation, made every effort to make Romanian art better known to the American public.
The archive that documents his transatlantic journey, which is preserved in his Memorial House in Bucharest, evokes a New York life of extraordinary elegance in which the Romanian painter became a voice almost as powerful as it was in his own country. He took in the energy of the metropolis and befriended some influential figures of the artistic circles, like poet Edwin Markham (1852-1940) and writer and art aficionado Jeanne Robert Foster (1879-1970), an intimate of lawyer and art collector John Quinn, a great admirer of Brâncuși. Petrescu’s brief, but significant connection to both Markham and Foster, whose portraits he had the chance to paint, was mediated by the Romanian professor, writer and journalist Leon Feraru, the greatest early promoter of Romanian culture in New York and beyond.
Costin Petrescu painted New York cityscapes and portraits of locals. At Foster’s initiative he and his wife, Elisabeta (Lizica), were honored by an “artists’ tea party” by the National Arts Club. At Feraru’s instigation, an article about the Romanian painter was published in The Varsity, Columbia University’s students’ magazine.
Photo 1: The portrait of Jeanne Robert Foster by Costin Petrescu (1920?), reproduced in: Richard Londraville, Janis Londraville, Dear Yeats, Dear Pound, Dear Ford: Jeanne Robert Foster and Her Circle of Friends, Syracuse University Press, 2001, p. 29
Photo 2: Black and white photo of a New York cityscape painting by Costin Petrescu from the archive of "Costin Petrescu" Memorial House, Bucharest
Jeanne Robert Foster remained particularly attached to the portrait Costin Petrescu made for her, which adorned her home in Schenectady, NY until the very end. She loved it and explicitly pointed that out to her biographer, Richard Londraville. After her death, it became part of the Foster-Murphy Collection at the New York Public Library where it lies dormant in its vast storage, a witness of the wondrous past times. The portrait of Edwin Markham had at some point disappeared. What has been left in the Markham Archive are several documents from the 1950s which attest to the efforts that were made to retrieve it. Sadly, they have all been unfruitful.
Costin Petrescu enjoyed what New York could best offer in terms of artistic life while working to accomplish his official duty and fulfill his artistic call. He believed that he had a mission to promote Romanian painting and traditional art in the U.S. He met with William H. Fox (1858-1952), then director of the Brooklyn Museum, and set a plan for a Romanian art exhibition, which among many others was to include painters N. Grigorescu, Th. Aman, Șt. Luchian, Gh. Petrașcu, N. Tonitza, J. Steriadi and sculptors C. Brâncuși, O. Han, Fr. Storck. Unfortunately, the project never materialized due to apparently insurmountable bureaucratic obstacles. He might have felt vindicated by the success of the Romanian exhibition at the New York World’s Fair of 1939-1940 and by the thought that the artists he had tried to present finally enjoyed the appreciation they deserved.
Guest contributor: Prof. Mona Momescu
Photo 3: Design of the 50 lei Romanian bill by Costin Petrescu (two photos of original sketches and two original sketches; verso: original sketch), the archive of "Costin Petrescu" Memorial House, Bucharest
Photo 4: The article "Costin Petrescu. An Interview" in The Varsity (vol. I, no. 2, February 1920, p. 8), Columbia University Archives, Butler Library, New York
Reference book: Eduard Andrei, Pictorul Costin Petrescu la New York, 1919-1920 (Painter Costin Petrescu in New York. 1919-1920 ), Paideia Publishing House, Bucharest, 2019