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Carlo Leonetti

Time Period: 
1918-1950
Location: 
53 W. 46th St., New York City
Biography: 

(1895-1994)

Graphic artist, painter, and photographer Carlo Leonetti was born in Naples, Italy, studied at the Cooper Institute in New York City (1910-1914) and the Art Students League from 1914 until his service in World War I. He fought in the trenches in Flanders and at Ypres as a private. He decommissioned in April 1919, but immediately undertook officer's training for service in the Army Reserve. In 1920 he became an American citizen. With his return stateside, he re-installed himself in the bohemian world of New York artists. He took dance lessons with Michael Fokine, played minor roles in motion pictures (including a Chinese fruit peddler in "Broken Blossoms"), translated Sam Benelli's Italian play, "The Jest," for his friend John Barrymore, took voice lessons with Francis Toree, and opened up a Greenwich Village themed nightclub, "The Pirate's Den."

He continued his training at the Art Students League under Robert Henri and began receiving widespread notice for magazine covers for The Masses, a journal of leftist opinion and cultural commentary published in New York City. Although Leonetti always practiced photography concurrently with painting, he did not begin shooting portraits of persons in New York's artistic world until his nightclub days. Beginning with George White's Scandals of 1920, he also had an occasional life as a Broadway dancer. One evening after a performance at a theater he found a hundred dollar bill and with it he bought the "best camera I could find." This proved a turning point in his artistic life, because with the instrument he began the serious documentation of performers in New York's dance and theater worlds.

In 1923 he performed in the Max Reinhardt spectacle "The Miracle." An order for 1000 copies of a portrait of Lady Diana Manners, the leading actress, began his career as a professional photographer. He set up a studio at 63 W. 46th Street, but shortly afterwards, in 1924, was hired by Macy's Department Store to head their photographic portrait studio. He worked there for a year before returning to his private studio. From 1925 to 1939 he supported himself by photography, enjoying a supremely success business in celebrity portraiture and advertising images. Yet he remained equally fascinated by painting. He belonged to the Whitney Studio Club, a group of left-oriented artists including Rockwell Kent, William Glackens, and John Sloan that showed periodically throughout the 1920s. He worked in a modernist figurative style developed out of Robert Henri. He regularly appeared in shows by the Art Students League, or the New York Artists shows at the Municipal Galleries. He taught painting at the Children's Aid Society Center and organized mural-painting projects with young artists throughout the 1930s. He was also active in the governance of the Art Students League in the late 1930s.

As a Reserve Officer, he was called to service several months before Pearl Harbor. He served throughout World War II and was decorated for bravery while overseeing the policing of Berlin after the Allied conquest. After the War, Leonetti began painting ample-bodied, modernist female nudes. During the 1920s nudes had taken on an importance in Leonetti's photographic work. He sold these images to the various "art magazines" that proliferated during the 1920s and 1930s. He lived the last decades of his life in Tampa, Florida, with his wife Mayme Sellers Leonetti, where he maintained a studio until his death at age 99 in 1994.

NOTES: "Wins Trip to Europe," New York Times (Jun 22, 1937), 21. "Exhibition Today by Local Artists," NYT (Aug 3, 1938), 17. "Art Notes," NYT (Feb 21, 1941). MS memoir prepared by Carlo Leonetti supplied by his grand-nephew, Basil Leonetti. David S. Shields/ALS

Specialty: 

Because of his background in dance, Leonetti's sense of pose reflected a whole body sensibility. Full-figure shots appear frequently in his oeuvre. His bust shots tend to be posed dynamically as well, and invariably encompass at least 1/4 of the body. He shot unadorned almost abstract nudes, often posed with a mannerist breadth of gesture. His portraits have a purity and lack of complication that is refreshing. His 1930s portraits often attempted a two-dimensional, graphic quality by reducing shadows to a minimum. He sought to depict the humanity of persons, and was among the most sympathetic of theatrical portraitists.