There are fish painters, and then there are artists. The good ones bring life and color to their subjects, reminding us of the limit-less beauty that lives beneath the sea. The really good ones capture the grace and power of blue-water predators as they streak through their netherworlds. However, the list of artists who can faithfully re-create every oceanic hue in oils, convincingly dribble sunlight across the slenderest of silver ghosts and portray with mesmerizing realism the world's largest game fish as they emerge like magic from the murky depths - well, there is really only one who could ever do that. Welcome to the undersea realm of Stanley Meltzoff, the man who pioneered the world of marine art.
Meltzoff was born in New York City on March 27, 1917, to hardworking parents steeped in their Jewish faith. The oldest of three, young Stanley soon proved to be an art prodigy and possessed a keen intellect. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the City College of New York and went on to advanced studies at the prestigious Pratt Institute of New York. In 1942, the young artist then suddenly found himself in khakis on his way to Italy. For more than three years, Sgt. Meltzoff worked as an illustrator for The Stars and Stripes Army newspaper, sitting next door to the famous battlefield cartoonist Bill Mauldin. Meltzoff painted his way up and down the Italian boot, and it became an eye-opening education in more ways than one.
Returning stateside in 1946, he taught art for a few years before building up the artistic courage to strike out on his own. The commissions began as a trickle but soon grew into a flood. Meltzoff took on work that included iconic advertising campaigns, fantasy illustrations for books by Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, and magazine covers for Argosy, Life, The Saturday Evening Post, Scientific American, The Atlantic and others. In 1976, Meltzoff's unforgettable imagery appeared on the cover of every AT&T telephone directory in the country - more than 176 million in all. But it was too late; his attention had already turned seaward.
When he wasn't painting, Meltzoff went diving. His first underwater experience took place as a young lad off the New Jersey coast, and he had an epiphany while exploring the world that exists under the surface. Diving became a passion of his, and he was an avid diver and spearfisherman since the late 1940s. He was hugely proud of his two New York state spearfishing records (a 21½-pound bluefish and 65-pound striped bass) and spent countless hours underwater gawking at fish. Finally realizing he could blend his art expertise and passion for diving into a unique skill set, Meltzoff managed to convince the art director at Sports Illustrated to print a special series on striped bass with his paintings providing the key visuals. The publication hit newsstands in 1965 to rave reviews and proved transformative for the artist.
From that point forward, Stanley was first and foremost a fish artist - the true founder of the genre. Sponsored by such legendary anglers as Ted Naftzger and Steve Sloan, Meltzoff dove all the world's oceans to observe game fish in their natural environs. While common enough today, this practice was wildly speculative at the time. Would these giant fish attack an underwater observer like a dog protecting its yard? What about when the large fish were hooked and desperate for escape? No one knew.
With Sloan as his guide, Meltzoff was first introduced to the practice of diving with billfish during the storied Masters Tournament off Palm Beach, Florida. Billfish inspired Meltzoff, and he took it upon himself to observe all the world's billfish alive and in the water - a feat he completed (except for shortbill spearfish) in 1987. He watched tentatively, he photographed, he studied, he considered, he sketched - and then he painted.
With brush in hand, Meltzoff em-ployed a strictly old-school technique. He preferred to paint on wood panels, always concerned about the crackle and fragility of stretched canvas. Many of his larger works were preceded by small studies, themselves often gorgeous examples of fine art. Interestingly, Meltzoff was ambivalent about the value of studies, recognizing their contributions to the finished piece but worrying the effort would exhaust his own creative reservoirs. Once he resolved the issues of color and composition, he would sketch out the scene in a light underpainting and begin constructing his subjects layer by layer. For the central figures, numerous layers would be required as he built his fish from the inside out. A final overpainting provided both dimension and wetness, giving the viewer the unmistakable impression of oceanic depths or skinny-water flats. Painstaking as the process was, the results were incomparable.
Over the next 20 years, Meltzoff's art would dominate the high-end sporting press and inspire legions of followers. He painted billfish and tuna, tarpon and snook, bonefish and permit - all in breathtaking detail. Working from his basement studio with two live parrots flitting about overhead, he completed hundreds of game-fish pictures that found their way to museums and private collections around the world. Meltzoff's most notable works include a series on tuna done for National Geographic's Atlantic Bluefin Tuna Project in 1979 and '80 and award-winning images completed for Field & Stream, Gray's Sporting Journal and Sports Illustrated. Meltzoff was widely honored throughout his career, and his death in 2006 at age 89 stilled a brush that will never be equaled.
To the veteran angler, admiring a Stanley Meltzoff painting for the first time brings the passion to life. Dedicated fishermen spend lifetimes pursuing their quarries. They know the proportion of every fin and the fish's many colors from every angle. To this audience, the tiniest artistic flaw becomes an error of monumental significance. When the dazzling complexity of underwater color, depth, dimension, light and texture is added to the mix, even gifted artists will shy away from attempting a realistic portrayal. Unable to render their subjects as they really are, they will often add their own unique style as a smothering agent to hide the mistakes. When that angler is first confronted with a Meltzoff painting - one that conveys an impression so real that it's like peering through an undersea picture window - the avid sportsman is captivated. How can this be? It just is.