We’ve all seen plein air artists at work, their easels pitched near lovely garden vistas, delicately painting miniature representations of the scenes at hand. But Lake Forest artist Sam Rosenthal takes this to a grand scale.
Tonight, for example, the 6 feet by 10 and a half feet canvas he’s painting sits at the busy intersection of LaSalle and Wacker in downtown Chicago. The city view he paints is of the Chicago River—bridges, skyscrapers, passersby, the sky doing its sunset best, and all the mundane magic in between. People stop to watch, taking cell phone pictures and studying Rosenthal’s interpretation of the streetscape they are walking through.
“People always gather,” he says. “I don’t mind. It doesn’t keep me from focusing on what I’m doing. When it’s going well, it can be really energizing.”
The “what” he’s doing just now, is capturing the interplay between natural and artificial light, using his brush to apply dabs of oxide red and cadmium yellow—each visit to the location bringing him a little closer to finishing the work. When it’s finished, Rosenthal says the painting, still untitled, will be on display until March 25 at his one-man show at the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio. The painting has been in progress for two months. But some of his works take much longer.
“‘Sunset at Wells and Wacker’ took six months,” he says. “And, ‘Playing Around the Magnolia’ took three subsequent spring seasons.”
Rosenthal says it can be challenging when working on a large canvas like this one.
“I rent a truck to bring the canvas to and from the site, and sometimes an assistant to ensure it doesn’t blow away into traffic, bystanders, or the river,” he laughs. “But I really enjoy painting on location, regardless of the season and surroundings. Working from life is the best way to get the actual colors, edges, and true experience of what I am trying to translate to canvas.”
City views are popular with Rosenthal clients who have commissioned him to do public works on display at institutions including the Northwestern Medicine Prentice Women’s Hospital, Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital, and even the Chicago Federal Reserve.
But Rosenthal’s work isn’t limited to urban landscapes. There are portraits such as “Funny Face”, and “Portrait of Ann Marie”, and still life paintings such as “Bowl of Peaches.” The year he was artist-in-residence at the Indiana Dunes, there were many peaceful, lakeside landscapes.
While Rosenthal’s work has been described as “immersive” and he is an impressionistic realist, he’s not bound to any specific technique.
“The subject of my work determines its own best mode of expression,” he says. “I paint what appeals to me, primarily in oil, but do some watercolor as well. I choose scenes and subjects that seem relevant to people’s lives, environs, and what’s going on around them—whether it is an open field, an urban intersection, a bowl of fruit, or a little girl.”
Rosenthal grew up in Lake Bluff, the third son in a family of four brothers. As an infant, Sam contracted spinal meningitis, a serious illness that dealt a blow to his early verbal expression. But Rosenthal overcame this quickly, showing an interest in illustration and developing mad math skills that had him at the gifted level by grade school. He started painting and drawing when he was a child, taking classes at the Art Institute of Chicago, and then the American Academy of Art.
After getting a BA from Washington University in St. Louis, Rosenthal kept painting, studying again at the American Academy of Art; Palette and Chisel Art Academy in Chicago; the Lyme Academy of Fine Arts in Lyme, Connecticut; and Bougie Studio in Minneapolis. He took a several year sojourn to Europe and Australia. He moved to Lake Forest with his family in 2015, establishing a private gallery, and has been busy painting ever since.
With the evening light gone, Rosenthal packs up the U-Haul to return to his studio where he’ll refine the work further.
“People often go through their daily routines without noticing the beauty around them,” he says, gesturing thoughtfully. “I’m doing my best to change that with my paintings. Beyond the physical, I want to show a little of the drama, mystery, and complexity that’s right there beneath.”
For more information about Sam Rosenthal’s work and Sam Rosenthal Fine Arts, visit samrosenthal.com.