The following is a guest post by Owen Ellis, Archivist, Prints & Photographs Division.
An invaluable record of modern design and art during the 1920s through 1940s is now available through the Winold Reiss Collection. Close to 800 drawings, photographs, posters, and prints document the creativity and contributions of a visionary designer. The collection highlights include original designs by Reiss for dining establishments, apartments, and hotels as well as decorative art patterns, furniture, and commercial art such as packaging and labels. The Library of Congress has selections of drawings, rather than the documentation for entire design projects, in order to represent the diverse work Reiss created. All items held by the Library have been digitized and are available to the public.
Winold Reiss (1886-1953) came from a family of artists. His father Fritz Reiss (1857-1914) was a landscape painter and his brother a sculptor. Reiss himself was a versatile artist. He worked on everything from architecture and graphic design to landscape and portrait paintings. Departing from his native Germany he arrived in New York in October of 1913, and his wife Henriette and infant son Tjark joined him the next year. In the United States the young designer found success with many commissions where he could showcase his talents. Some of his most well-known works are the murals and rotunda ceiling in the Cincinnati Union Terminal; interiors for the Hotel St. George in Brooklyn, the Crillon Restaurant in Manhattan, and the Longchamps chain of restaurants; and his portraits of American Indians.
In 1915, Reiss co-founded the Society of Modern Art, which published the Modern Art Collector magazine. That year he also established his own school and studio in New York, where he mentored many art students. One of these was a young Aaron Douglas, who became a key figure of the Harlem Renaissance. He also painted portraits of prominent figures Langston Hughes and W. E. B. Du Bois. Writer Alain Locke was so impressed by his work, he asked Reiss to illustrate his book The New Negro: An Interpretation (1925), which became one of the most important publications of African American culture at the time.
In the early 1920s Reiss traveled to the western United States, Mexico, and Europe, creating new works with inspiration from new subjects. His paintings of American Indians garnered him further attention. He was commissioned by the Great Northern Railway to paint dozens of portraits of members of the Blackfeet Tribe, which were distributed as lithographic reproductions in calendars. During his time on the Blackfeet Reservation he developed some close friendships, and was ultimately made an honorary member of the Blackfeet Tribe with the name “Beaver Child.” Reiss incorporated American Indian-inspired motifs into some of the commercial art he created, as his interest in American Indian cultures continued to grow.
Although Reiss loved the American West, he always returned to New York, the creative center for his career. Later in life he purchased a home in Reno City, Nevada, intending to retire there, but he passed away at a relatively young age in 1953. His ashes were scattered over a Montana hillside by members of the Blackfeet Tribe. All that remained was his legacy in the art world. The collection at the Library of Congress provides a sample of his diverse creative output. The bulk of his work remains with the Reiss-owned family archive.
Making the Collection Available Online
Between 1989 and 2014, Ford Peatross, then the Prints & Photographs Division curator for architecture, design, and engineering, gradually acquired a representative sample of Winold Reiss’s work, primarily from the Reiss Family. Not until 2018, however, was a scanner available that could do justice to the vibrant colors and metallic paints that Reiss used. We dived in at that point and assembled a team to organize, describe, and digitize each drawing. A Metis scanner captured each of the unique drawings effectively, utilizing lighting in multiple scan passes that can be adjusted to show off the reflectivity of the metallic paint, for example, and applying custom color profiles to accurately reproduce the colors Reiss selected for his designs.
Tips for Accessing and Using the Collection
All of the collection can be viewed online through the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog. You can browse through the images by searching for “Winold Reiss collection”; adding keywords such as “New York” or “magazine covers” will narrow down results. We organized most of the items into groups with a shared call number based on design project. Some works have not yet been associated with a specific project or date range and are described as unidentified or miscellaneous until more information is available. Each group has a catalog record description to provide information about the overall project, and each item is also cataloged individually with its own description.
Original materials can be seen in the Prints & Photographs Reading Room by making an appointment in advance. Extra time is needed to safely pull fragile drawings from their storage locations, which are in different locations according to their sizes. A research appointment (when Library of Congress reading rooms open for researchers) can be made by sending an inquiry to the Prints and Photographs Division through the Library’s Ask a Librarian Service.
The rights status differs among the drawings, with close to 500 items having “no known restrictions on publication” because works by Reiss received by the Library prior to 2008 included the intellectual property rights as part of the gift. Items received in 2008 and after require permission for publication. Each catalog record has a rights advisory note to guide your use of the materials. You can also reference the Winold Reiss rights statement on the Reading Room’s web site.
Highlights from the Collection
Reiss created art for a variety of companies and brands, exploring different styles and themes, many of which are represented in the collection. Other notable items are graphic designs made by Reiss for various publications. Included are designs for covers of books and magazines such as the Modern Art Collector and Detective Magazine.
Reiss also created designs for theaters, stages, and exhibitions, including the Music Hall and Applied Arts Building of the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Very few of his commissions survive today, because building interiors and packaging styles are so frequently updated. His contribution to the Joyce Theater (originally Elgin Theater) in New York is still visible, and the collection contains several proposed designs for theaters, one of which was ultimately used for the Elgin.
Another extant commission is his designs for the Cincinnati Union Terminal. The Reiss Collection has the original drawing for the color scheme of the rotunda of the terminal (see above). Although the Library does not have original drawings for the murals themselves, they are documented in multiple photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith collection. The terminal’s history and architecture is also documented by the Historic American Buildings Survey, under the survey number HABS OH-705.
- Explore the Winold Reiss collection online.
- Have a look at color photographs of the Cincinnati Union Terminals in the Carol Highsmith Collection.
- Delve into the history and photographs of the Cincinnati Union Terminal in the Historic American Buildings Survey
- If you’re curious about Winold Reiss’s depictions of Blackfeet people, Prints & Photographs Division collections also include reproductions of portraits of Pikuni and Kainah people by Winold Reiss and William Langdon Kihn (LOT 6729); read a description of the group, given in 1953 by Gladys G. Wittemann (the items are not digitized).
- Put on your reading list publications to which Reiss contributed (the Library has copies, and they may be in other libraries, as well) A.C.: A Monthly Collection of Modern Designs (catalog record) and The New Negro: an Interpretation, edited by Alain Locke; book decoration and portraits by Winold Reiss (catalog record).
- Visit the Reiss Partnership and Private Archive web site.