A Guide to Stanley Meltzoff’s Gamefish 

Stanley Meltzoff, Permit on the Flats

by Brooke Chilvers

When illustrator Stanley Meltzoff (1917-2006) was forced by changes in the 1960s publishing industry to re-invent himself as a painter of saltwater gamefish, the self-described “picture-maker” was already middle-aged.  

Thus, the artist and avid spearfisherman, who’d started diving with a mask and tanks in 1946, Meltzoff came to invent the genre of piscatorial underwater oceanic vistas that had great appeal to sports fishermen. Meltzoff described his canvases as “portholes” into the salty universe of bluefish, black marlin, bonefish and barracuda, bluefin tuna, sailfish, tarpon, and sharks, and all the gossamer inklings of jellys and small bait fish that accompany these species.

Stanley Meltzoff, Bluefin 13, Orca and Tuna #2

To paint ocean fishes, Meltzoff learned “at what tide, in what phase of the moon, on what day, at what water temperature, over what depth, facing in which way, off what beach, from which jetty, over which rocky outcrop, how far out, and in water of how many inches of visibility I might see fish.” He could “lie still as a rock along the jetties, to drift as a skein of seaweed down with the tide in the inlet, to slip under water with no splash and no sound.”  

He called striped bass his totemic animal, and once took a world-record 65 pound specimen. To portray them, for 25 years he dived from April to December, searching out in murky waters the species he described as “my desire, my prayer, my prey, my victim, my guilt, my model, my teacher, myself.”  Like Claude Monet’s haystacks, he painted them at different seasons, at different times of day, living out different behaviors—pursuing herring in the spring to spawn, then fattening up on fluke in summer, then squid in autumn in preparation for winter hibernation.  

Stanley Meltzoff, Marlin Running, Boat Backing Down

To paint bluefin tuna—the first large pelagic species he got physically close to—Stanley spent a summer diving with 70 huge tuna, confined within nets 60 meters wide, set in St. Margarets Bay in Nova Scotia, watching their dorsal finlets glowing iridescently as they feed, and their speedy twists and turns catching flashes of sunlight.

To observe the relatively common sailfish, Meltzoff pursued them from Palm Beach, Cozumel, Acapulco, and Caracas.  He once saw more heavy-bodied black marlin in ten days than he saw blue marlin in ten years; striped marlin, he wrote, were the easiest to see, in Baja and Cabo.  Appreciating the narrative tension that even dull-colored sharks add to a painting, as in Swordfish 4, Broadbill, Mako and Sea Arrows, he spent $10,000 and ten months to visit with great whites in their waters.  

Stanley Meltzoff, Jewfish 6, Sabbath Reef Worship

Sports Illustrated was his first big bite as a fish painter, followed by National Geographic and Field & Stream.  They all went for his ability to create multiple dramatic images of a single species for their big color spreads.  He started out with his beloved striped bass, then painted everything from bluefish to bluefin.  Magazines sent him out on expeditions, and off to sailfish tournaments in Palm Beach and blue marlin competitions in St. Thomas.  It helped that his assignments put him eye-to-eye with potential buyers at a milestone moment in their sporting life.  These events opened him to invitations onto sportfishing yachts, where he could take notes and sketch the fish on the end of the line, and dive among them in the open sea. 

It’s not easy to communicate an underwater universe with no horizon, no vanishing point, and infinite depth below.  Meltzoff developed his own “visual systems” to establish wet-world depth of field and perspective.  For scale, and to distinguish who is near and who is far, his “tricks” included overlapping fishes of different sizes such as bluefin tuna and orca.

Stanley Meltzoff, Swordfish 4, Broadbill, Mako and Sea Arrows

Meltzoff used the angle of light and quality of shadow to express the weather and time of day.  To brighten highlights, he used subtle handling of the surrounding dark areas, employing different ranges of shading and clarity of detail for each zone. Sometimes the underwater visibility is as clear as ice; or murky from bonefish muddying up sand and shell dust; or percolating with the bubbly whish of a boat propeller speeding away, as in Marlin Running, Boat Backing Down.   

In the ocean, starting at about twenty feet deep, red, orange, yellow, then finally green colors simply disappear until you are left in an impressionist rainbow of reflected and refracted blues, which is what Meltzoff painted.  But he recolored the corals and algae as if in shallower water still capturing the sun.  He could envision color values in his head, converting the greyscale at sunless sixty-plus-feet deep into full color, as in Jewfish 6, Sabbath Reef Worship.  

Stanley Meltzoff, Self-portrait as a middle-aged Neptune

Meltzoff swam with fish, studied, photographed, and sketched them in the field, in aquariums and his handy studio tank.  He dived with sailfish, and blue and striped marlin.  He herded and confined fish close to shore in temporary weirs and basins.  He hung fresh, often gifted, specimens from the ceiling of his studio with pins and wire, which helped solve any questions of anatomy. He worked out the lighting and shading using clay models of his subjects, casting them in the light for that sea, in that season, at that depth, from that angle, at that time of day, under those waves and wind.  

Like generations of artists before him, Meltzoff underpainted his canvases with either gouache or gesso, depending on the brushwork and texture he wanted to achieve.  He built his fish from the inside out, filling out the flesh with overpainting.  Then the skin, which required its own five layers of primer and paint. Last came Meltzoff’s miraculous translation of ocean water.  Amen.

Stanley Meltzoff’s self-portrait as an older Neptune gives Brooke Chilvers the uncanny feeling that had she met Stanley Meltzoff, they would have become good friends.