From the 1940s through the '70s Riccardo's restaurant, at the corner of Rush and Hubbard, was one of the liveliest joints in town--it was once called the "Montmartre of the midwest." On any given day the Italian eatery, tavern, and exhibition gallery hosted an eclectic group of regulars--celebrities, artists, and writers, from the raffish to the respectable--who sipped drinks in the sidewalk cafe, were served lasagna inside by singing waiters, and convened in the "Padded Cell," a private room where journalists talked shop.
People could also quaff a few at the huge bar, which was shaped like an artist's palette, and feast their eyes on seven large paintings mounted on the wall behind it. The works had been commissioned in 1947 by the restaurant's proprietor, Renaissance man "Ric" Riccardo, and included works by some of Chicago's best-known artists at the time. "These murals are the pride of the restaurant," wrote Alson Smith in his 1953 book Chicago's Left Bank, "and are insured for $100,000."
The set, known as "The Seven Lively Arts," depicted allegorical scenes of the arts, from architecture to dance, in modernist and cubist styles, and for more than a quarter century the four-by-eight-foot canvas-on-board panels stayed together. But by the mid-70s the two most valuable works, by Ivan Albright and Aaron Bohrod, had been unceremoniously sold off. The remaining five, including one by Riccardo himself, continued to be fixtures at the restaurant until it finally closed in the mid-90s.
For years the whereabouts of the paintings was a mystery to many in the art world. In her 2001 book A Guide to Chicago's Murals, Mary Lackritz Gray listed the works as missing; critic Franz Schulze, writing in the foreword, said they'd "simply disappeared." But Seymour Persky--a lawyer, real estate investor, preservationist, sometime visitor to Riccardo's, and noted collector of art arcana--knew otherwise. He's spent the previous year or so tracking down and acquiring all seven paintings, one of which was owned by someone in New York, another by someone in Connecticut. "I had the time and I had the money," he says. "I felt it was an artistic coup to put them all back together again. It's a part of Chicago history."
The 80-year-old Persky, who's said to have the most extensive collection of Chicago-related architectural fragments in the country, wound up paying $665,000 for all seven works. The Albright alone--one of only a few major works by this important postwar American painter that isn't in a public collection--cost Persky "an ugly penny. I can't say it was a pretty one, because money is never beautiful. But when you want something, like art, you just pay it. Everybody made money but me."
The paintings, only two of which needed to be restored, will be unveiled September 20 at the Union League Club's Rendezvous bar, at 65 W. Jackson, where they'll remain for up to a year. But not just anyone will be able to walk into the club and look at them. Arrangements are still being worked out for public viewings.
Richard, or Riccardo, Novaretti was born in Italy around the turn of the century and traveled the world as a ship's mate until he got married in New Orleans. By the 1920s he and his wife, Mimi, had moved to Chicago, where Riccardo--a painter, dancer, musician, and chef--ran a restaurant on South Oakley during prohibition. He also did work for the Works Progress Administration's Illinois Art Project, where he got to know many like-minded spirits. In 1935, inspired by a left-bank artists' cafe, he bought a former speakeasy at the lower end of Rush Street and opened Riccardo Restaurant and Gallery. He hung his own paintings on the wall, sold some, then invited his artist friends to put their canvases in monthly exhibitions. A lot of that work sold too.
Riccardo soon expanded his restaurant into the building next door, and in 1947 he expanded into the one next to that, putting in the palette-shaped bar and windows. It was then that he commissioned six of his WPA friends to do the panels. He assigned the subjects and told the artists not to look at each other's work, and he unveiled the paintings that summer: Ivan Albright's Drama (Mephistopheles), Albright's twin brother Malvin's Sculpture, Aaron Bohrod's Architecture, Rudolph Weisenborn's Literature, William Schwartz's Music, Vincent D'Agostino's Painting, and Riccardo's own Dance. Riccardo was the model for Ivan Albright's devilish figure; its unflattering legs were modeled after those of Albright's new bride, newspaper heiress Josephine Medill Patterson.
The artists didn't get a lot of money for their work. Persky has a letter Bohrod wrote to a patron in 1974, in which he says Riccardo had paid for materials and given him either $1,000 or $1,500 and a few spaghetti dinners; Bohrod didn't know if any of the other artists got cash, but he said some got free meals for life. That could have been the case with the Albright twins, who shared a studio space at a former church in then largely rural Warrenville and could be found at the bar whenever they were in town. They didn't really need the money.
In the 1940s Ivan--known for his dark, idiosyncratic, baroquely detailed pictures--was the closest thing Chicago had to an art star. As Alson Smith wrote in 1953, "Ivan thinks nothing of asking $100,000 for a painting now on the grounds that the old masters bring that price and that he's as good as any old master." Smith also described how, after spending time in Hollywood, where they were paid $75,000 to paint portraits for the 1945 movie The Picture of Dorian Gray, the twins "came back to Rush Street to argue with Ric about the proper proportion of gin to vermouth in the dry martini." Robert Cozzolino, a curator at Elvehjem Museum of Art at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an Ivan Albright scholar, says no one has found any record that Ivan was paid for Drama (Mephistopheles) and adds that the artist might have waived his usual fee. "It's one of the few commissions Albright ever did," says Cozzolino, "and it's possible that because he did it for a bar he may not have thought that highly of it. But in terms of scale and how strange a painting it is, it's his own follow-up to The Picture of Dorian Gray."
Riccardo died in 1954 at the age of 51, and his son Rick, who'd attended Roosevelt University and served with the army in Korea, soon returned to Chicago to take over the restaurant. But he was in his mid-20s and, according to Persky, didn't seem particularly interested in running the place. He was busy pursuing an acting career and appearing in many local plays, and by the mid-70s he'd been married three times and was saddled with mounting alimony and child-support debts. Persky says, "He was a spoiled brat."
By 1974 the Ivan Albright and Bohrod panels had disappeared. (The Albright was replaced with a photographic reproduction, and a painting by John Foote took the place of the Bohrod.) Persky says that Rick was going through a divorce at the time, "and he, in an act of either spite or contempt, sold the two best ones for $1,000 each one night, as Shakespeare would say, 'whilst in his cups.'" That same year Rick sold the business to Nick and Bill Angelos, brothers who did their best to maintain the restaurant's colorful legacy.
In the late 70s Persky bought Albright's Drama (Mephistopheles) "dirt cheap," after it became part of a divorce settlement. Rick would die in 1977, choking to death in an Arizona restaurant.
Persky recalls loaning the Albright to Stuart Brent's bookstore in 1978 when Michael Croydon was there to sign copies of his biography of Ivan Albright. The artist himself was on hand to sign the book, and Persky talked to him--the only time he ever did. "He was a cute little guy--an impish sort of person with a great wit," says Persky. "He told me some things about the picture," including the detail that Riccardo and Josephine had been models.
Albright died in 1983, and three years later Persky turned the painting over to a local auction house. According to Cozzolino, it was sold to Richard Feigen Gallery. Persky, who made a handsome profit, then lost sight of it.
The Angeloses put Riccardo's up for sale in 1989 and got no takers. In 1992 they leased the building to a group that opened a posh dining club. A year later the club was gone and the Angeloses were back running the restaurant. But the place was no longer popular, and on August 25, 1995, the brothers threw a big closing bash, which was attended by many of the old regulars. "The taxes, they started to kill me," Nick explained to a Chicago Tribune reporter. "The taxes and the other restaurants and the fact that people don't drink like they used to." Later he told the reporter, "Now if I had crowds like this every night..." Eventually the building was sold to the Wrigley Company, which leased it to a restaurant that soon closed, then to Phil Stefani, who opened his 437 Rush restaurant there in June 2000.
Persky had always thought the panels in "The Seven Lively Arts" deserved to be reunited and preserved, so when he became chairman of the Union League Club's art committee in June 2000 (a position he no longer holds) he decided to bring them together. He says he "put the word out in the industry," calling on lawyers and art experts, including local collector and preservationist Barton Faist, to find out if the panels were available.
Faist had gone with Persky to Riccardo's in 1993 to ask about buying the remaining five panels, but they couldn't reach a deal. When Faist heard that Riccardo's was about to fold two years later he went back and bought seven paintings by Ric Riccardo that had once been mounted on the restaurant's walls and ceilings.
When Persky said he wanted to find the Albright and the Bohrod, Faist knew where to look. "I'm always concerned with what happens to Chicago art," he says, "and I've always been interested in trying to keep track of things." He contacted the owners and got back to Persky.
"Barton introduced me to people in Connecticut who had the one by Bohrod," Persky says. "I called them and struck a bargain. And that was that." He paid $215,000 for it. Sid Deutsch, of Sid Deutsch Gallery in New York, had had the Albright since 1997, and Persky wound up paying $350,000 for it.
"They were taken very good care of," says Elyse Klein, paintings conservator for the Union League Club. "When they left Riccardo's restaurant they passed through galleries, so my feeling is that they have been [cleaned]."
Meanwhile Persky had found out that the other five remained in the hands of Nick and Bill Angelos, both of whom still lived in the Chicago area. "They were tough to make a deal with," he says, "because they knew that what they had wasn't as good as the two. But they did know that the Schwartz was valuable." William Schwartz had immigrated from Russia to Chicago, where he became a major modernist in the period between the wars. He was a good friend of Riccardo's and had once lived in a studio above the restaurant.
At first the brothers didn't want to sell the paintings, but Persky wouldn't take no for an answer. Eventually they agreed to meet him for lunch and named a price: $60,000. Persky offered $50,000. They demurred and said that Vicky Angelos, Bill's daughter, would be in touch with him.
Persky soon became frustrated trying to reach her, but he knew he was being tested. "We played games with each other--telephone tag," he says. "Consequently, I met her and said, 'Look, I'll make you a deal. Let's cut the comedy. I'll give you a hundred thou for the five pictures. Take it or leave it.' Well, this was 40 more than they wanted. She said she'd call me back."
"He was a very persistent man," says Vicky, who used to wait tables at Riccardo's in the summer and is now marketing director for an investment management firm. "For five or six months he didn't let up. He just wanted the paintings, period--whatever it would take." She finally called Persky this spring and said her father and uncle would take the money.
But Persky still wanted to make sure the works were in good condition. Last April he, Klein, and Union League Club curator Marianne Richter met the family at Vicky Angelos's home in the northwest suburbs and were shown the paintings arrayed in the garage. They'd been in storage elsewhere, and Richter and Klein decided they were in pretty good condition and only two, the Schwartz and the D'Agostino, would need conservation work. Persky handed each of the brothers a check for $50,000. "It was 50 more than I wanted to spend," he says, "but so what?"
Klein has been working on the two pieces since early July. "The problems that these paintings have are relatively simple ones," she says. Both had smoke residue and splatters of food on them, and the D'Agostino had some water damage. "We're not trying to do any major face lifting or anything. We're just trying to make sure that things will hang on the wall in a stable condition and that they look their best."
"I feel that they've gone into good hands," says Vicky Angelos. "He'll take care of them, and hopefully everyone will get to enjoy them again." Faist too is pleased. "They're very important works," he says. "We always thought they should be brought back together again--it was smart of [Persky] to do that. He got a good deal. They belong in a museum."
What will happen to the panels after their year at the Union League Club? "I know they're a part of Chicago," Persky says, suggesting an arrangement with the Cultural Center might be possible. But if nobody wants them, he says, "I plan on building a pyramid and being buried with them."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Drea, courtesy Barton Faist.