David Leffel: One of America's Great Artists - Bright Light Fine Art
David Leffel: One of America's Great Artists

David Leffel: One of America’s Great Artists

Many of the greatest artists in American history have walked through the doors of the Salmagundi Club in New York City.  Some 55 years ago, a young David Leffel, entered those prestigious doors.  And over his lifetime has joined the ranks of those American greats.

I’m Tim Newton, Chairman of the Board at the Salmagundi Club. We are very proud to count David among those true master artists that have graced our hallowed hallways.  It is my high honor to share with you some of the stories of David’s amazing journey.

About David Leffel

On November 9, 1931, David Leffel was born. The descendant of two immigrates from Minx, the capital and largest city of Belarus, Russia. His parents, Rachel and Murray, raised him in Williamsburg, a Jewish neighborhood, in Brooklyn, New York. At that time, they conversed in Yiddish until David reached the age of four.  And suddenly, he became ill with a life-threatening disease.

David would move away from his home and spend all but one year until he reached the age of 15 in a convalescent home in far Rockaway, Long Island. It was there that the artistic seeds within him began to emerge. Living in the boys’ ward of the hospital, David witnessed death firsthand. This unusual upbringing would shape his view of the world.  His circumstances demanded that he faced the fact that his grasp on life was also tenuous. This shaky start heightened his appreciation for the importance of each moment.  It increased his sensitivity toward the frailty of human nature.

How Art Came to Him

Empathy for the human condition would soon be an integral part of his artistic philosophy. Drawing became a part of his daily activities.  It soon became apparent that he possessed extraordinary powers of observation. At age 12 he copied a photograph of his hero, the famed baseball player Joe DiMaggio, complete with a perfectly forged signature. Not only was he learning to see, but his true nature was also crystallizing his attention to detail, his patience, his perseverance, and his necessarily strong will.

These qualities would eventually distinguish him among his professional colleagues in the art world. In 1959 David tried on the life of an artist by showing at the Greenwich Village Outdoor Art Show.  This was in a neighborhood street fair conducted in lower Manhattan every spring and fall. His success in the show opened his eyes for the first time to the possibility of selling paintings for a living.


Because of his exposure, in this particular show, the Salmagundi Club, one of New York’s oldest and most esteemed art clubs made David Leffel its first scholarship member. Encouraged, he started showing in New York art exhibitions where he accumulated awards and ultimately garnered the much-coveted Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation Grant.

This Canadian institution would acquire one of his earliest self-portraits for its permanent art collection. Galleries began to take notice of his special talent.  Especially, two of the most prominent galleries at that time.  FAR Gallery in Manhattan and Kenmore in Philadelphia. David would soon join some of the top representational artists of that time in the New York art scene.  This included Birch Silverman, Harvey Dinnerstein, David Levine, and others. He had several studios in Manhattan, one in the Lincoln Center area, and several downtown studios.  But the most spacious was located in a building on West 45th street in a fifth-floor walkup. It had 18-foot ceilings and measured 25 feet wide and a hundred feet long.

Imagination at Work

The building had an artistic quality that sparked David’s imagination. It’s brick walls had seen a former fire that left layers of paint charred and peeling off. An eyesore to the common man, but to David, it was a visual stimulation that generated some of his most compelling still life’s and interiors of that time. The young man who was compelled to take a phonograph apart piece by piece to see how it worked, grew into the man who would take a painting apart for the same reason. As an artist, he wanted to go beyond making beautiful paintings.

He wanted to find the answer to this question. What is painting?

Rembrandt shared this same curiosity and tenacity.  Despite David’s exposure to Frank Mason’s teaching for one year at The Art students’ League in New York, and to the inspirational guidance of Eugene V. Biel-Bienne and Dimitri Romanovsky, David’s real mentor was this iconic Dutch artist.

Sharing His Knowledge via Teaching

David continued to quietly gather fans among his colleagues as he started exhibiting out West in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Soon artists and collectors bought his work as word spread of this new East coast master. From the time he entered the professional scene in 1963 awards came frequently. He’s won gold medals in New York and beyond as far West as the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City. David’s obsession to understanding painting came with an extraordinary gift for sharing this knowledge.

He was hired to teach at the league in 1972 where he took over the class of famed portraiture Sidney Dickinson, a prominent William Merritt Chase student. David would become one of the students, most beloved instructors for 20 years until his move to Taos, New Mexico in 1992. We live in a time when museums, herald in postal mail sacks and invisible canvases as great art. One can only muse that David was born to rescue our society from a kind of madness where craft is construed for novelty and the verbal idea has replaced visual beauty.  All of which has all but been banned from the conversation about what art is.

The Rembrandt of Our Time

Rembrandt’s genius has been recognized as unparalleled. He understood painting in a way that only a handful of artists have had the tenacity to uncover.  David A. Leffel is arguably one of the few who have achieved Rembrandt’s understanding of the logic behind painting.

Fortunately, for those interested in acquiring the knowledge of how paint can visually transform into flesh, air and light on canvas, David has the skill, intelligence and generous nature to share his exceptional understanding with the students of this fine tradition, leaving a legacy to the art world that will stand as an extraordinary gift in the annals of art history.

Narrated by Tim Newton, Chairman of the board at The Salmagundi Club

Watch the Full Bio video on how David Leffel became one of American History’s greatest artists of all time, and the challenges he faced and overcame.

Become a member of The Artists Guild to learn how to paint, draw and discover your inner artist from this amazing master artist!

You can also watch David live on Facebook every Sunday at 11:00am Mountain Time for free! 


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