Thomas Nygard Gallery - 19th and 20th Century American Art




(1886 - 1953)

Winold Reiss, known mostly for his American Indian portraits designed for the Great Northern Railroad calendars and ads, is among the most significant American artists from the twentieth century.  While portraiture served to preserve the individualism of the societies, Reiss served the cause of unifying the country through his recognition and admiration of American diversity.


Born in Karlsruhe, Germany in 1886, Reiss was raised by an artist father, Fritz Mahler Reiss, a well known portrait and landscape artist.  Reiss senior studied at the Düsseldorf Academy which strongly emphasized studies taken directly from nature or en plein air.  Training at first with his father, Reiss eventually was accepted into the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Munich and studied with Franz von Stuck, whose other students include Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and Franz Marc.


Because of the booming industrialization and socialism in Europe at this time period, artists were turning from the pressures of urbanization and studied the land, peasants and folk culture as a link to the simpler, less materialistic societies.  Reiss admired the diversity of American society.  Inspired by the novels of James Fenimore Cooper, Reiss was mostly fascinated with the American Indians.


Reiss became a founding member of the Jugendstil movement, a German decorative arts movement that paralleled the English Arts and Crafts Movement and French Art Nouveau.  He had a particular style dedicated to design and decoration that would prove to become a great contribution to modern American design.  He finally moved to the United States in 1913, dedicated to a fresh new start where he felt there would be less competition for his artistic ambitions.


Reiss was very much a part of the twentieth-century ideal of folk culture’s morality, using a number of portraits of people from all ethnic cultural and social backgrounds to break the boundaries of social inferiority.    He finally moved to the United States and fell particularly in love with Montana and the Blackfeet Indians.


Reiss landed in Browning, Montana in 1919 where he met the Blackfeet Indian nation.  He quickly made friends with his subjects as they appeared to be just as fascinated with him as he was with them.  This friendship, Reiss held, was a friendship which he valued more than any other.  The Blackfeet initiated him into the tribe as "Beaver child," in reference to the intensity of his painting, and were the subjects of many book illustrations for which Reiss was commissioned.


Reiss’s travels brought commissions in which he constructed multiple murals depicting the American Indian in theaters, restaurants such as Longchamps in New York City, hotels, clubs and the Cincinnati Union Terminal.  He started the Winold Reiss Art School in New York City, teaching numerous students and studying alongside fellow artists.


In September of 1953, Reiss passed away after spending a year in bed due to a paralyzing stroke.  In July of the next year his ashes were brought to the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Browning where a traditional ceremony was held in which his ashes were scattered.

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133 East Main Street

Bozeman, Montana 59715

 phone: 406.586.3636