by Kathy Megyeri
On a recent trip to Sarasota to tour circus developer John and Mable Ringling’s mansion, Ca’ d’ Zan, I was most impressed with the ballroom’s ceiling tiles painted by prominent Hungarian artist Willy Pogany. In the museum’s book store, I purchased a volume of the complete illustrations of Pogany and was surprised to learn of his prolific output and extent of his art in leading institutions throughout America.
Born Vilmos Pogany in 1882 in Szeged, Hungary, he spent the first six years of his life on a farm. Then his parents took him to Budapest to attend school where he originally enrolled in engineering studies at the Budapest Technical University, but he enjoyed painting and drawing so much that he decided to become an artist. He sold his first painting to a wealthy patron for $24. He then attended school in Munich, went on to Paris for two years, studied and worked in London for a decade, and finally came to the U.S. in 1914.
He garnered favorable reviews in 1906 for illustrating the story of “Rip Van Winkle” and went on to illustrate over 100 images for the “Welsh Fairy Book” by T. Fisher Unwin, thereby becoming known as a prolific illustrator of children’s books. What endeared him to audiences were his pen and ink drawings of myths, fables and magical animals, such as nymphs and pixies, his great attention to botanical details, his warm pastel water colors and intricate oil paintings. His masterpiece was completely illustrating ”The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” But, when he moved to America, he became more interested in theatre, stage setting and costume design and began working for the Metropolitan Opera House. He later moved to Hollywood to serve as an art director for several film studios during the ‘30’s and ‘40’s. His finest film productions were “Fashions of 1934” and “Dames.”
It wasn’t long before some of America’s wealthiest patrons commissioned Willy to paint tiles, walls and ceilings for their mansions. In addition to John Ringling’s Florida home, Pogany painted for William Randolph Hearst’s California estate, followed by commissions for John Barrymore, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Carole Lombard. Pogany was so lauded that he was awarded gold medals in Budapest and at the Leipzig Expo. In 1914, his illustrations graced the covers of major magazines like Harper’s Weekly, Town and Country, and Ladies’ Home Journal. Willy was married twice and had two sons.
His works can still be seen in New York City at the Bernard Jacobs Theatre on 45th Street and at the El Museo Del Barrio Theatre at 1230 5th Ave. In addition to illustrating more than 150 volumes, he wrote three art instruction books. Willy died in New York City in 1955, but his whimsical self-portrait at the left of the entrance to the game room in Ca’ d’Zan in Florida causes visitors to smile in gratitude for this. Hungarian artist who brought so much joy to audiences worldwide.
To see more of Pogany’s work, visit AmericanArtArchives.com/pogany