The less traveled road of the self-educated artist.
By Brooke Chilvers
It was all there in the voice. You’d think the only child of an Italian foreign-news correspondent—a child who loved race cars, was raised in New York City, and photographed Pelé playing at Yankee Stadium— would have a Park Avenue accent. But it was the rough-and-tumble timbre of Adriano Manocchia’s Bronx childhood that recounted his uncustomary path to his late-starting career as an oil painter.
Adriano (born 1951) describes his youth as right out of the movie A Bronx Tale—Catholic school, doo-wop music, and fishing for flounder off the docks in City Island. When the family moved to the suburbs, he ran with a virtual United Nations of neighborhood kids, playing in teenage rock bands between strict piano practice. After seven years as a full-time photographer for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union in Manhattan, he spent a half dozen more as an international photojournalist, covering auto racing and news stories that put him on the USS Nimitz, in the Goodyear Blimp, on Air Force One, and face-to-face with Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, plus a couple of presidents. But the definitive moment was that 1968 Santos versus Benfica match when his father, who was covering it for a sports daily out of Bologna, Italy, handed his 120 mm Rolleiflex camera to Adriano. When Adriano’s photo of Pelé kicking the ball was published beneath Manocchia Senior’s byline, the 17-year-old bought an impossibly expensive Nikon and began accompanying his father on assignments. The day his classmates were graduating from high school, he was off earning serious money shooting the Indy 500 for racing magazines.
When it came to college, his old man nixed his dreams of “doing anything that would bring me closer to cars.” Instead, Adriano paid his way through Pace University to a degree in journalism while plunging into the Big Apple music and museum scene. In his junior year, when his father took him to Italy to meet magazine editors and relatives, he laid eyes on his future wife, Teresa; both families originate from lovely Giulianova on the Adriatic Sea. In 1973, they married, moved to New Rochelle, and had a son: Adriano.
Years later, while attending a Cowboy Artists of America exhibition at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, the successful 33-year-old photographer with a family to support and a mortgage—who had never studied art—was overwhelmed by the desire to experience and express such landscapes and sunsets for himself. Then and there, Adriano decided to become a full-time artist. “I figured that if other artists could make a living with a paintbrush, so could I.” Boys from the Bronx don’t believe in just getting their toes wet, so six months later, he shut down his 100,000-miles-a-year life.
He spent the next 18 months in the library studying not the Old Masters themselves, but rather their techniques—their ancient methods of mixing pigments and applying linseed oil, varnishes, and glazes to achieve their singular effects and patinas. Then, “I bought myself a ton of paints, canvases, and brushes. The rest was trial and error.” At first, no topic worked for him, not the vintage Mercedes or biplanes of his past, until a visit to the Bronx Zoo resulted in his first wildlife painting of a Harris’s hawk. But zoo animals and wild animals are different in very profound ways, so Adriano turned to the great outdoors to study his subjects. He traveled every year at different seasons to Yellowstone and “peopled” his God-lit landscapes with bison, bear, and elk. Remarkably soon, he was accepted by the Society of Animal Artists, which rapidly widened his knowledge of other artists’ works.
One day, a burly fellow named Dan walked into the Manocchias’ New Rochelle gallery and frame shop and asked if they had any “sporting art.” Next thing, the “bluefish-off-breakers” guy was fly fishing the Croton Watershed in upper Westchester County. When Dan requested a sketch of himself casting, Adriano was immediately hooked to portraying the watery world of fly fishing. He studied its history and imagery in art and soon started painting anglers in the Croton River and along historic Catskill rivers. Only two years later, in 1986, Adriano and Teresa had several of his paintings reproduced for numbered and signed limited-edition prints to market during the World Hunting and Fishing Expo in Suffern, New York—and sold them like hotcakes, along with a few original oils.
There, he also made friends with fly tying champion Ted Patlen, with whom he’s since fished “every puddle, stream, and creek from Montana to Scotland.” Ted is also the red-shirted fisherman in many a Manocchia painting.
But another show was nearly a dud until collectors John and Maryjane Dreyer, who owned Pleissners, Ripleys, and Bensons, bought his Harris’s hawk. More important than the purchase, they also introduced him to the prestigious J. N. Bartfield Galleries in New York City, where then-director John Apgar became Adriano’s first living mentor. He taught the painter the importance of meaningful titles and encouraged him to delve deeper into the trompe l’oeil still lifes that today comprise an important aspect of his oeuvre.
The tradition of portraying everyday objects in still life dates back to 16th- and 17th-century Flemish Baroque and Dutch Golden Age artists, such as Pieter Claesz (1597–1660). The game piece, a tradition within that tradition, is epitomized by Frans Snyders (1579–1657), a student of Pieter Brueghel the Younger and who also collaborated with Rubens. In the United States, William Harnett (1848–1892), of After the Hunt fame, is America’s favorite trompe l’oeil still life artist; but he was far from self-taught and studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Cooper Union, and the National Academy of Design.
For Adriano’s waterfowling and fly fishing still lifes, such as A Trip Up North and Western Summer Memories, he uses old-timey ephemera, from woven creels, bamboo rods, and vintage brass fly reels to weatherworn leather fly wallets and 25¢ copies of Field & Stream and Outdoor Life. He’s bought many an old book only for its cover. With the photographer’s keen sense of lighting and composition, Adriano relates the sportsman’s whole tale with just an Adirondack basket, a finger-rubbed pipe, and a three-penny postcard from Out West. Although he says he’s pretty much run the gamut of this genre, he still gets a kick out of confectioning stories from objects with powerful connotations. One turkey hunter kept sending Adriano additional items—his hunting gloves, more shells, even a fully spread turkey fan—until “a small oil” grew into a 28-by-32-inch painting.
Adriano calls his style contemporary realism. Yet his vibrant colors go beyond actualness to express a heightened perception of nature. In their book Water, Sky & Time, Teresa Schiavi Manocchia describes how Adriano “takes a moment to absorb—to be absorbed by—his surroundings. His emotions, his innermost response to the moment and the experience are what will ultimately surface in his paintings.” Still, works such as Chance of an Indian Summer also have solid roots in the mid-19th-century Hudson River School of Thomas Cole.
In terms of his plein air technique, Adriano is generally too impatient to make on-the-spot oil sketches. Instead, he uses his cameras to make aide-mémoire of fleeting cloud formations, blackening shadows, and subtle changes of light.
To achieve his goal of transporting the viewer into the waterscape, he’ll take the sportsman’s eyeshot and elongate its horizontal view into a panorama, and then fills the painting’s forefront with a wide expanse of water. In Sharing the Morning, you are in the middle of the Firehole River, watching the lone fisherman in the gauzy half light cast within shooting distance of the mist-shrouded elk. In First Light, First Cast, the off-canvas viewer is another high-country creek fisherman, pausing to drink in the glorious expanse at this bend in Yellowstone’s Madison River.
But Adriano can also go “tight,” with no vistas beyond the rising morning vapors in A Good Hiding Place or behind the fisherman casting from a huge fallen log, his line shattering his watery reflection in Right on the Money. In Early Morning Magic, for the strong horizontal, he paints the fisherman backed by a Rockwellian wooden bridge, his mirrored image sucked into the tannin-stained Vermont waters.
Adriano confesses his love affair with light- absorbing, light-reflecting, and light-refracting water. He increasingly enjoys exploring its transient transparent character according to the wind and sediment, or whether it’s bouncing off the bubbling-up surfaces of trout feeding. He translates “all what makes up a river,” learned from fishing some of them, such as the Battenkill, three or four times week.
Logical thinking, says Adriano, shaped the development of his work method. After sketching a scene on a smooth, gesso-primed board covered with a thin wash of raw umber to establish a warm chromatic base, he loosely blocks out the larger dark and light shapes in burnt sienna, ultramarine blue, and white. To build up the undertones that give his waterscapes their fluidity, wetness, and depth, he applies five, even six layers of color. Having to wait for each one to dry means he can work on up to six pieces at the same time. Then he adds the fine details and nuanced highlights.
To create his hallelujah sunrises and backlit, sun-drenched sunsets with the trout rising and a plague of mosquitoes in the damp air, as in Summer Magic, he puts only six or seven pigments in a circle on his palette: burnt sienna, alizarin crimson, ultramarine blue, red, yellow ochre, titanium white, and Payne’s gray. Although the oil painter has no interest in acrylics, Adriano has dabbled in watercolors, experimented with porcelain, and wishes he could devote more time to his limited-edition etchings.
After their son struck out on his own after college, Adriano and Teresa moved to 38 acres in the rural farming community of Cambridge in Upstate New York—Grandma Moses country—where his backyard stream offers native brookies. To break up 10-hour days in the barn studio, the artist with the Bronx chords takes his most authentic self to his meeting place with the fish.
Brooke Chilvers recommends Adriano Manocchia’s Water, Sky & Time, published by Rick and Skip Dyer of White Creek Images. Not only is Rick a major collector of Adriano’s work, but he and Skip have also published several dozen of Manocchia’s paintings as prints, posters, or limited-edition lithographs.