Artist C. Gregory Stapko; Duplicated Famous Works

C. Gregory Stapko, shown on his 90th birthday, painted 50 to 70 works a year.
C. Gregory Stapko, shown on his 90th birthday, painted 50 to 70 works a year. (By Michael Stapko)
By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 19, 2006

C. Gregory Stapko, 92, a portrait painter, painting restorer and the nation's foremost copyist of famous works of art, died at his home in McLean on March 12, two days before his 93rd birthday. He had cancer.

His copies of famous works, many from the National Gallery of Art, hang in the White House, Blair House, the Arlington House, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, U.S. embassies, government agencies and the Cosmos Club as well as the walls of businesses and private homes around the world. He did original portraits of Supreme Court justices, ambassadors and private citizens across the area.

Mr. Stapko's career as a copyist began in 1941, newly arrived in Washington from Milwaukee, where he had been a house painter, construction company owner and fledgling portrait painter. He discovered that he could lug his paints and easel into the National Gallery, set up in front of a painting on the wall and spend hours perfecting his technique by making a copy.

As his son, Christopher Stapko, tells the story, an antiques dealer saw a copy he had made of Pierre-Auguste Renoir's "A Girl with a Watering Can" and assured him that he could sell it. Mr. Stapko, short on cash, sold him the copy, which ended up in the dealer's shop window.

Not long afterward, as Stapko recounts the story his father told him, "goons in trench coats" came to his house, bundled him into a car and hustled him to a basement office of the National Gallery, where John Walker III, then chief curator, and other gallery personnel waited for him in states of high anxiety.

"Do you know what you have done to me?" an angry Walker asked. "Because of you, I've been accused of releasing these paintings to an antiques dealer for public sale."

Mr. Stapko's copying genius led to a new gallery rule requiring that all copies had to be done at least two inches smaller than the original and labeled on the back with paint that would stand out under X-rays long after the color had faded. It also led to Mr. Stapko's years' long association with the National Gallery of Art.

"Copying is a definite field in art, and it calls for much study and a mastery of techniques," Mr. Stapko told the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin in 1947, shortly after being commissioned to make a copy of Gilbert Stuart's famous "Lansdowne" full-length portrait of George Washington for the U.S. Embassy in London.

It usually took Mr. Stapko a week or two to make his copies. At the height of his career, he was turning out between 50 and 70 works a year, both copies and originals.

Casimir Gregory Stapko was born in Milwaukee to Polish immigrants. He won a scholarship as a youngster, but he hated school, so he turned it down and dropped out after the seventh grade. At 13, he was apprenticed to various church painters, who taught him to restore frescoes, imitate marble and woods, paint murals and apply gold leaf.

At 18, he started a house-painting business with 40 helpers, many of them teenage alumni of the local reform school. He did his own painting whenever he could find the time.

With the outbreak of World War II, most of his young helpers and skilled craftsmen enlisted or were drafted, so Mr. Stapko, rejected by the draft board, shut down the business. He moved to Washington at the urging of the Polish artist Eliasz Kanarek, who had painted the murals in the Polish pavilion at the 1939 World's Fair in New York. Kanarek operated a studio on H Street and had prominent connections in Washington. Those connections led to portrait commissions for his protege, Mr. Stapko.

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