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400 Portraits Exhibition.jpg

Opening reception: 5 to 7 p.m.
Friday, March 22, 2024

Exhibition: March 22 - May 11, 2024

Portrait Society Gallery of Contemporary Art


Review: Milwaukee Record

Portrait Society Gallery of Contemporary Art is thrilled to present a major exhibition of work primarily from the 1950s. Oscar Gruber (1897-1987) created approximately 400 oil portraits during a decade of attending weekly live (3-hour) drawing sessions at the famous Art Students League in New York City. Gruber was steadfast in his love of painting, even while working full time at a furniture specialty finishing store that he owned. The Art Students League offered a weekly retreat where he could engage in the absorbing process of painting from a live model. His paintings are loose, gestural, expressive and sophisticated. They hold a sense of midcentury ambience while infused with energy and life. A shared humanity, reflective of New York City itself, is represented in the diversity of the models.


Oscar was a first generation Jewish American who was born in his mother’s dressmaking shop in Brooklyn, New York. The family had immigrated from Romania.  


Oscar’s son, Mathew (1924-2024), passed away recently at age 100. He was also dedicated to creative pursuits. Mathew Gruber built and engineered the first talking automatons (pre-Disney). These moving puppets, including a Howdy Doody, toured the United States as part of advertising campaigns.


To connect the span of past and present, the exhibition also includes a room of contemporary life drawings by Wisconsin artists. Life drawing is a practice that has remained integral to an artist’s training for centuries. It is one of the only foundational practices that has endured. Artists of all ages continue to gather during weekly sessions with nude models who do timed poses. It is a way to share community,  hone skills, and explore line and mark making.


“Persistent Practice” documents a continuum between Oscar Gruber’s devotion to  weekly painting classes during the 1950s and early 1960s through the pluralistic contemporary art world where the relationship between model and artist miraculously continues.


The exhibition was curated by Portrait Society Gallery with assistance from Seth Ter Haar, an artist, curator and recent graduate of the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.

Portrait Society thanks the family of Oscar and Mathew Gruber for sharing this work. 

GALLERY HOURS: Thursday-Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. 

Life Drawing Opportunities in the Milwaukee area

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