GATTO, VICTOR JOSEPH
painted in an energetic style, using precise brushwork to complete an estimated 350 paintings on board and canvas, pencil sketches, and watercolors. Drawing on hisimagination and memories, he depicted subjects as varied as exotic jungle and underwater scenes, circus spectacles, flowers, biblical allegories, current events, andouter space landscapes. An oil on canvas from about 1943,
depicts one such toothy, winged figure on a riverbank perilously near a knight dressed in fullarmor. Gatto uses expressive, repetitive outlines of white, black and yellow to articulate the forms and masses. Across the river stands a castle on the horizon, andGatto has taken pains to render a tiny face in each castle window as well as describe the figures watching the scene from the far riverbank.Gatto resolutely refused to use printed sources or other artists’ work as models. The artist’s interest in exact detail is manifest in his painting of a circus performing inMadison Square Garden. Working sixteen hours a day for six months, he attempted to paint thousands of people in the stands, reflecting the 18,500 spectators he wasinformed had attended a particular circus performance.Although patient and painstaking as an artist, Gatto was personally temperamental and volatile. His antisocial behavior led to a dishonorable discharge from theUnited States Navy during World War I, as well as subsequent criminal activity for which he served time in prison.An Italian American, Gatto was born in New York City’s Greenwich Village. His drawing talent was recognized early, and he was awarded an art prize at theCatholic school he attended. When Gatto was eight, Theodore Roosevelt paid the class a visit and remarked, according to the artist, that Gatto “was the best drawer inthe school.”Gatto went to work at an early age and held a variety of jobs, including as a dishwasher, carpenter’s assistant, and as an extra in a movie. He was a professional prizefighter from 1913 to 1920, and a plumber’s assistant and steamfitter until 1940, when a hernia forced him to look for less strenuous work. Observing the work of and talking to artists at the Greenwich Village Outdoor Art exhibition in 1938, he believed he could paint as well as they could. Owing to increasing health problems, including failing eyesight, Gatto stopped painting in 1960; he died in Miami, Florida.Represented by the Charles Barzansky Gallery in New York, Gatto’s work was reviewed in newspapers in 1944 and 1956, and magazine features about himappeared in
Esquire, Colliers, Town and Country,
Painting, American Folk; Sterling Strauser
Epstein, Gene. “The Art and Times of Victor Joseph Gatto.”
vol. 13 (spring 1988): 56–63. ——. “The Art of Becoming Gatto.”
no. 6 (summer 1992): 20–23.Trechsel, Gail Andrews.
Pictured in My Mind: Contemporary American Self-Taught Art from the Collection of Dr. Kurt Gitter and Alice Rae Yelen.