Starving artists are a dime a dozen. Adolf Sehring is a novelty. He gets $10,000 to $50,000 for a painting and completes about two dozen works a year.
That comes out to somewhere between $240,000 and $1.2 million. Of course, it doesn't always work that way. One year he may sell 20 works, the next year only a dozen. Life can be tough for us all.
Indicating a portrait casually propped up against one of the three Rolls-Royces in his garage, he mutters, "I turned down $60,000 for that one."
He is not sure how many blooded Arabian horses he owns. He thinks five, with two on the way. He breeds them.
There are also four parrots, and a peacock that has the run of his 30-acre estate outside Culpeper, Va.
"I had another peacock that attacked cars. He hated hubcaps."
Sehring's life history has a certain dreamlike quality to it. There is struggle in every life, but some people have a knack for struggling in the right direction. He was born in Russia and raised in Germany, the son of a noted theatrical designer. When he was 6 he had peritonitis, usually fatal in the days before sulfa drugs. It was 1936, and for three months he lay in a Kiev hospital with ice packs around his abdomen to freeze out the inflammation.
His roommate was a paralyzed old man, and Sehring drew a picture of him. It was so uncannily accurate that the boy became locally famous overnight. Things like that were always happening to him.
When his family emigrated to America in 1949, Sehring joined the Army and was sent to Korea, where he took to drawing nude portraits of Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell and giving them to his buddies. Finally a general got wind of it, hauled him in, read him the riot act--and asked for a sample.
Before he knew it he was charging $10, then $20. He painted nudes on helmets, cars, jackets, fences. They say his work can still be seen along the 38th Parallel.
After the war he started an interior design and art-exporting business in Philadelphia and soon had 180 people working for him. But he wanted something with a little more risk and excitement. He wanted to paint. So he sold the whole operation, hired an agent and immediately sold a painting for $200.
"Within 10 years," he says, "my income increased 22,000 percent. That's right."
Adolf Sehring is little known in the establishment art world, though he has works in, for example, Temple University, the Bayly Museum at the University of Virginia, the residence of the American ambassador in Rome, and the Vatican, where his commissioned portrait of Pope John Paul II is the only papal portrait by an American artist, according to Sehring's publicists. During the pope's visit to Washington, Sehring sold copies of the portrait.
Art experts at the National Gallery, the Corcoran Gallery and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, some local gallery owners and others, say they have never heard of Sehring.
"There is a whole culture of highly successful and technically accomplished artists," one critic noted, "who appeal to a large, affluent audience which wants a handsome depiction of a scene and isn't so much concerned for its value as 'art' per se."
Sehring works through an agent in New Jersey and through galleries in New York, Detroit, Washington, Baltimore, Houston, Evansville, Ind., Honolulu and other cities. He appears on TV talk shows and is the subject of articles in magazines such as the one handed out on Concorde flights. He also works through large sales exhibitions.
"He has never been locally reviewed," says Miriam Fisher-Reno, owner of the Fisher Galleries near Dupont Circle, his area representative for at least a decade. "He's a real on-location painter: Sometimes you find bugs on his canvases. He's a genius." Fisher will have a major show of Sehring's paintings in June.
He sells mostly to professional people, doctors and lawyers, many of them country boys who ache with recognition of the carefully recorded farm scenes.
"I've had men come up to me and point to a painting and say, 'I lived there once; I know what it's like to walk barefoot through that field.' If I can get that feeling across, I've done my job."
The artist talks fast, chain-smokes, moves with economy and decision. Around the house, among the antiques, he keeps samples of stages in his career, from the Winslow Homeresque temperas he did in Germany to the lyrical Virginia landscapes (often populated with rather sentimental children) and the small bronzes of lions and horses and human figures that he turns out in editions of 40 or so.
What is the basic secret? What does it come down to, this ability to look at a head, a hand, a fence post, a basket, an apple, a nose, and put it on paper exactly?
"It's the attentive eye," he says briskly. "The photographic eye. Now you, when you look at a line, by the time you've moved to the paper you've forgotten it. I don't forget. I retain it and draw just what I saw."
It sounds so easy.
He never works from photographs. He writes notes as he wanders around the countryside: "standing at barn door, apple tree to SW and fence--early spring--late afternoon--long shadows." Then a quick pencil sketch. Then the paints.
How long it takes depends entirely on the weather, so much a part of his work. Some paintings he finishes in a week. Some could take over a year, like the autumn-foliage number that was ruined when a storm blew all the leaves away and he had to wait until the next fall.
"Now this one," he says, pointing to a painting of a flower basket on a shelf, "took me three hours. It goes for $52,000. But this one a snowy pond in winter , it was days and days. I froze my butt. A mood painting."
He doesn't often do winter pictures. It's one of the differences between him and the fashionable Andrew Wyeth, to whom his admirers often compare him, to his mild irritation.
If he must be compared, he says, it should be to Corot or Homer.
"Wyeth understates, uses a single color scheme. He does somber subjects, winter scenes. I do a lot of young people and summer scenes, more color. I like color, and in fact I started as an impressionist, but the older I got the more I understated it. Flamboyant color is easier. It's harder restraining yourself."
He waves dismissively. "Anybody can do color."
He rarely works an eight-hour day but puts in a few hours in the morning and again in the afternoon if the light is right. For a particularly sensitive piece, say, the last minutes of dusk when the evening light is draining from the smoky Virginia hills, he paints everything but the light effects beforehand, then waits to capture that magic moment.
Unlike Monet, he says, he has no interest in doing the same site over and over in different lights. "I pick the most advantageous condition and do that. Light isn't the whole thing, just an emphasis. You use it for your effects. Frontal light means less texture."
He holds up his hand to show how the veins make more interesting shadows in a glancing light. "I prefer evening for the mood. Dusk is a super time."
He doesn't underpaint. He lets the canvas show through "to give an airiness." The thin paint layer allows more freedom for his remarkable precision: the individual white hairs on a handyman's stubble, the rust stains around an old nail in a weathered wood fence, the worn place on a sneaker.
Many of the landscapes are lightly spattered with tiny brown flecks for a softening, romantic effect.
"I get the details," he says, "yet also the distance effect. Few painters have my broad scope: nudes, animals, landscapes. I don't do watercolors or gouaches anymore. I love pastels but don't do those either. Some people collect them now."
He is not interested merely in painting the picturesque.
"Any artist who paints reality must have knowledge. Anatomy. Nature. You see broomstraw in a field, you know the land's been neglected because the lime is gone from the soil. A painting must say something. This farm picture here: It shows the life history of a man. He's not doing well but is hanging on. Things aren't kept up too well; there's a smell of hardship. But he's still going."
Sehring thinks realistic art is coming back. "They buy abstract art for an investment. But realistic art is a love affair. People buy these and keep 'em and don't sell because they love them. I have one customer in Detroit who owns 18 paintings of mine. He won't sell."
He doesn't work on commission because he doesn't want to have the client telling him what to do. Also, he doesn't need to. It's a pleasant life on the farm, riding the horses with his wife, Renate, and their 13-year-old son, Marc, who also shows drawing talent. Sehring doesn't hobnob with other artists much, he says.
For people who like his work but don't have the $50,000, there are lithographs. He uses the same lithographer who did Norman Rockwell. Rockwell is another artist to whom he is compared, to his chagrin. "Rockwell has his people doing things; he tells a story. I'm an observer. My people often will just stand there doing nothing."
Back in his studio over the garage, he gently works a clay figurine while the photographer maneuvers. It is a neat little nude, elegantly proportioned. His thumb nudges a tiny ridge from the shoulder. One hadn't noticed before, but now the shoulder is just that little bit more exact.