Moonwatcher Condominium, Unit 1 | Formerly “Helen.”
Mischa Richter, the photographer and filmmaker, was seven years old when his grandparents — the painter and comic illustrator Mischa Richter (1910-2001) and the painter Helen Mae (Sinclair Annand) Richter (1912-1992) — purchased this, the fourth and last of their Provincetown homes. “The house is saturated in light reflected off the water,” Emma Ross wrote for “Mischa Richter: A Retrospective” at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum in 1999. “The living room wall is awash in an eclectic array of photographs from Russia, artwork by his wife and friends, and paintings of his children. The upstairs bedrooms are all partially studios with piles of watercolors paintings scattered throughout. The house teems with relics of his life. It is a life of exodus, and of loss, but also tremendous happiness and personal accomplishment.”¹
This atmosphere — a quiet, simple, luminous beauty that is at once anchored and heartbreakingly evanescent — deeply affected the younger Mischa Richter. Before the family parted with the property in 2013, he used one of its windows to frame the writer Roger Skillings in an opening tableau of I Am a Town, Richter’s elegiac 2020 documentary about vanishing Provincetown.
Scenes from I Am a Town, a 2020 film by Mischa Richter.
Here, Mischa himself discusses the nature and influence of 457 Commercial on his life and on his film:
“I grew up on the dead end part of Bangs Street and our house was about 200 yards from 457 Commercial Street. My stepfather had a saying that he would put to my brother and I when we didn’t like his rules: “If you don’t like it, go to Helen’s,” and we did, a lot. My grandparents’ house always had a door open for us. I spent countless hours playing cards and watching baseball games with my grandmother.
“My grandfather didn’t want to live on the water at first because he didn’t want to worry about storms damaging the house, but Helen insisted. She usually got her way and once he agreed, he learned to love being on the water. I spent many hours with him sitting on the porch looking at the bay and drawing, he always had a sketch pad and was always trying new ideas for cartoons out on all of us. He also loved to swim during the warm months and we did this together a lot.
“Helen had multiple sclerosis and couldn’t walk for a lot of her life so she spent most of her time in a La-Z-Boy chair which faced the front door so she could greet visitors, but she wanted to be able to have the views of the bay at the same time so my grandfather placed mirrors at various points so she could get those views.
“457 was such an important place to me; it was a place of safety, creativity, laughter, culture, intelligence, and a place that gave me roots. Before it was sold I was given time by myself there to make some work about my feelings on losing it. I had three weeks with my cameras and a bunch of film. I thought a lot about what we were losing in selling the house and I realized that the view of the bay was what I would miss most. I had my memories and experiences but the view of the bay from the house was no longer going to be ours.”
Mischa Richter’s last days at 457.
“I came up with an idea and set up my large format camera positioned looking out the window of my grandparents’ bedroom and would take one photograph each day I had left there in the house. I ended up with 12 photographs from 12 consecutive days, my last days at 457. The bay is always different and always mesmerizing.
“457 also appears in a film I have recently completed. In the film Roger Skillings, a local author, reads from books he wrote about town. We filmed him reading in front of the same window I photographed those last days of staying at 457. I wanted his memories and ideas of the town to intertwine with my memories of my childhood and feelings that I have for the house.
“I also removed the floor of my grandfather’s studio which was spattered with ink from the hundreds of cartoons he drew and oil paint from the paintings he created there. The floor was part of an installation I made for a show at the Jack Hanley Gallery in New York City and now I’m going to incorporate the floor into a house I’m building here in town.”
457 Commercial Street, in a 2008 photograph by David W. Dunlap.
Notable for its gambrel roof and deep porch, the Richter house took its former name from Helen Richter and its unusual new name from Mischa and Helen’s son, Daniel Richter, who is also the younger Mischa Richter’s father. Dan played the part of “Moonwatcher” in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterwork 2001: A Space Odyssey, and choreographed the “Dawn of Man” sequence that opens the movie. His character — a protohuman, apelike figure — is inspired by the appearance of a sentinel monolith from an alien world to stand upright and to use a bone as a tool and, quickly, as a weapon. (Dan and his son Sacha Richter built a home and studio at 459 Commercial Street, on the eastern half of the Moonwatcher condominium lot.)
The current No. 457 is actually the second house to have been built at 457 Commercial Street. The earlier structure, and a companion at No. 459, were purchased in March 1916 by Henry H. Winslow of Cambridge from James and Hannah Lewis. Eight months later, Winslow sold the property for $1 to his son, Henry Joshua Winslow (1880-1963), a lawyer in Cambridge who had recently served as a state representative in the General Court.
Winslow and his wife, Grace Coolidge (Davenport) Winslow (1877-1970), then built the present 457 Commercial Street, as well as a boat house and garage that is now a residence numbered 455 Commercial Street. The Winslows’ granddaughter Katharine Winslow Herzog filled in their story for me in 2018:
“They spent summers there with their son, Henry [Davenport] Winslow [1910-1999], my father. They owned a sailboat called the Tamerlane, named after the New Bedford whaling ship the Tamerlane, captained by Joshua Baker Winslow. They sailed her in Provincetown Harbor. The Tamerlane was quite well known. People still tell fearsome tales of my grandmother ringing a bell and telling people to stay off of that boat! On the off season, they stored the Tamerlane in the garage/boat house …. Later, they were frequently joined their by their grandchildren Henry N. [Nick] Winslow, Philip N. Winslow, and me, then Katharine G. Winslow.”²
Left: Henry Joshua Winslow in 1898. From the Legislators’ Photographs Collection of the State Library of Massachusetts, handle/2452/203358. Right: Mischa Richter as a boy in Russia, in the mid-1910s. Courtesy of the Richter family.
Henry Joshua Winslow was born in Cambridge. He attended the Cambridge Latin School (now the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School). Harvard College awarded him a baccalaureate in 1902 and Harvard Law School awarded him a bachelor of laws degree in 1904. Two years later, Winslow was elected to the Common Council, when Cambridge had a bicameral system of government. He served as the council president from 1908 to 1909. He also served one year, 1912, as a representative to the General Court.
That year, Winslow joined the corporation of the Cambridgeport Savings Bank, which had been founded in 1853. He became the president of the bank in 1924 — during the time he and his wife spent summers at 457 Commercial — and he held the top post until he retired in 1936. (The institution changed its name to CambridgePort Bank in 1994 and was merged in 2003 into Citizens Bank, which currently operates two A.T.M.s in town.)
Winslow was wed in 1906 to Grace Coolidge Davenport, of neighboring Watertown. An entry on Find a Grave states that she was graduated from the Latin School — without specifying whether it was Cambridge Latin (her future husband’s alma mater) or Girls’ Latin School (now Boston Latin Academy) — and from Radcliffe College, the former women’s coordinate of Harvard College. It also states that she was a member of the General Society of Mayflower Descendants. Her direct forebears included Joseph Coolidge (1730-1775), a member of the Watertown minuteman militia. He was killed in the Battle of Lexington, the first armed conflict of the American Revolution, after leading a company of minutemen from Needham who had asked for directions to Lexington as they passed by his garden, where he was plowing on the morning of the battle.
Downstairs at the Richters’
Photographs taken in 2012 by David W. Dunlap.
Grace and Henry’s son Henry Davenport Winslow was — like his father — a product of Harvard College and Harvard Law. They practiced as Winslow & Winslow, in the India Building at 84 State Street, in downtown Boston. Henry fils married Katharine Nichols (1910-2012), a graduate of Skidmore College, in 1933. The older Henry Winslow died in 1963 after his clothes caught fire at home. His wife survived him by seven years.
Upon the death of Grace Winslow, the family sold the house to the legendary George Duncan Bryant (1937-2015) and Kristen A. Bryant, his wife at the time. In an interesting double transaction, dated 10 May 1971, the property passed from the Winslows to the Bryants through the Flagship Inc., the restaurant next door, at 463 Commercial Street, which was then under the management of Hilda Winslow Patrick (1893-1985). The deed to the Bryants specifies that the Winslow property “shall not, for a period of thirty (30) years from the recording of this deed, be used for a restaurant or otherwise for the sale of food or beverages.”³ The Flagship did not want a competitor cheek by jowl.
George told me in a 2009 interview that he winterized the house. He also subdivided the property into three parcels in 1977. The western parcel, including the boat house, was separated as 455 Commercial Street. The large middle parcel, 457 Commercial, contained the main house. The eastern parcel had only a gravel driveway and lawn at the time, but it’s where Dan and Sacha Richter would later develop 459 Commercial Street.
Bryant sold Nos. 457 and 459 to Richter in 1978, for $135,000 (about $550,000 in 2020).
Richter, one of the best-known members of the modern Provincetown art colony because of his six-decade career as an artist for The New Yorker, was born in the Russian Empire in 1910, in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv (Ха́рків, also spelled Ха́рьков), to Dora (Smekhov) Richter and David Wolf Richter, a plumber. After the initial convulsion of the Revolution, his father was made commissar of waterworks for the city — “a job which he didn’t relish because there was a lot of contraband and all that stuff, and he was responsible for every nail,” Richter told the interviewer Robert F. Brown in 1994 for an oral history collected by the Smithsonian Archives of American Art.
He laughed when Brown asked him about his recollections of the revolutionary era. “It seems the very opposite of what people expect because nothing happened,” Richter said. “I lived on the main drag, and every time I went out, I’d see demonstrations and parades. But my father was very proud of the fact that I drew pictures, and he got me a drawing instructor. I had two drawing instructors. I didn’t like one, so he got me another one.”
A young Mischa Richter in Provincetown in 1928. Courtesy of Daniel Richter.
Porch on the Bay, by Raymond Elman, 1995. Oil and digital collage on canvas. 60 by 43 inches. Caption: “Mischa Richter (1910-2001) was an artist and great cartoonist. He was a longtime contributor to The New Yorker.” In Volume 2 of Elman’s portfolio on his website, Raymond Elman.
Helen (Sinclair Annand) Richter. Posted by Daniel Richter on Ancestry.com.
Thomas Richter, photographed by his father, Mischa Richter. Posted by Thomas’s nephew, Mischa Richter, on his News From Land’s End blog, 5 May 2009.
Mischa Richter at 457 Commercial Street. Both courtesy of Daniel Richter.
Mischa’s grandson Mischa, the director of I Am a Town.
Left: Daniel Richter, son and father of Mischa Richter, in 2004. By his courtesy. Right: Sacha Richter, son of Daniel and brother of Mischa. By his courtesy.
Nonetheless, by 1922, Richter’s father knew he was in a perilous position as a commissar and as a Jew. “He figured that it’s dangerous to remain in this high position that he had because they’re not very nice if they accuse you of not being responsible,” Richter recalled. The United States beckoned, not least because family members had already settled in Boston after the First Russian Revolution of 1905.
On the pretext of heading off on vacation, the Richters boarded a train destined for Poland, but got off before it reached the frontier. By prior arrangement, they were met by a peasant woman who took them through the woods in a horse-drawn buggy, leaving them at a spot not far from the Bug River, which forms part of the Ukrainian-Polish boundary. In time, a man approached who said he would take them across. Under what Mischa recalled as complete darkness, they made their way on foot to the man’s rowboat, and were ferried over to Poland without incident. “The border being several thousand miles, you couldn’t very well have posted people all over watching it, so we just crossed it,” Richter said. “And then we spent a year in Poland living in luxury on a farm.”
American visas in hand, the family then traveled to France, where they boarded Paris, a 764-foot-long vessel with accommodations for 1,930 passengers. It was, at the time, the largest ocean liner flying the French flag. They were processed quickly at Ellis Island and then went to Boston, where 12-year-old Mischa picked up his studies. As a youth, he gained U.S. citizenship when his parents were naturalized, as a “derivative” of theirs.
The family lived on Myrtle Street, not far from the State House. David Richter opened a plumbing business in Taunton. Mischa was enrolled at the English High School, and studied drawing with Howard Zimmerman each day at the Museum of Fine Arts, working from casts. After four years, he was offered a scholarship to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (now the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University).
In the summers of 1928 and 1929, just before attending the museum school, Richter found himself in Provincetown for the first time. “I loved it right away because in those days, coming from Boston here took about two days to get used to the fresh air,” he said in the 1994 interview. “The change in air was like perfume. It was unbelievable. You don’t notice it anymore the way — as dramatically as it used to, as it was then. And … they were very, very friendly people.” Ask a fisherman if you might borrow his rowboat for the afternoon, Richter remembered, and the answer was: “Hey, sure, go out and use it.”
Giants walked the beaches in those days: William Harry Warren Bicknell (1860-1947). Edwin Walter Dickinson (1891-1978). John Whorf (1903-1959). And, nearing the end of his years, Charles Webster Hawthorne (1872-1930).
Mischa Richter, painter
A portion of Mischa Richter’s murals for the Burroughs Newsboy’s Foundation headquarters in Boston, now demolished. In this image, a photo taken at an oblique angle has been stretched so that converging lines are once again parallel. The original was published in The Boston Globe on 26 October 1936 and is on Newspapers.com.
These paintings were still hanging at 457 Commercial Street in 2012.
Car Race, by Mischa Richter. Oil on board. 12 by 18 inches. This was among his personal favorites. It was exhibited in the 1999 show “Mischa Richter: A Retrospective” at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, and is depicted in the catalog.
Left: Untitled (Ship Mast, Abstraction), by Mischa Richter. Oil on canvas. 30 by 40 inches. In the collection of the Town of Provincetown and depicted on the Provincetown History Preservation Project, Page 1697. Right: Untitled (Pier, Moon Abstraction), by Mischa Richter. Oil on canvas. Signed verso. 30 by 24 inches. In the collection of the Town of Provincetown and depicted on the Provincetown History Preservation Project, Page 1696.
“John Whorf, of course, was doing well,” Richter said. “I was drawing and he came — doing a watercolor — and he didn’t know me. He just came over and suggested a few things while I was doing it.” Bicknell, too. “He watched me draw one day, and he said to me — there was a cat lying down on a — I was drawing it, and he said, ‘The important line is where the cat’s body meets the thing it’s lying on.’ … They did things like that in the old days. The artists, you know, they spoke to one another. Very helpful.” And Dickinson? “He was crazy about my drawings, so I was quite flattered,” Richter said. “He was quite excited in meeting me, which made me — you know. ‘Oh,’ he says, ‘those drawings’ and all that. So I felt very flattered.” Richter even worked up the courage to personally deliver a party invitation to Hawthorne at his home on Miller Hill.
“My father used to send me $10 a week, and that’s how I lived. The room was $4.50, and no private toilet. Just some fisherman family would rent you a room, $4.50, and then I’d drink milk or something during the day and then at night, I splurged and spent 50 cents or 75 cents to get a meal in the restaurant — waited on and everything at that price in those days. So I lived quite well on $10 a week for a young guy.”
He attended the museum school in Boston from 1929 to 1930, where he met the artist Will Barnet, among the most important friends of his life. Richter transferred to the Yale School of Fine Arts, leaving in 1934 with a certificate, rather than a master’s degree.
The next year, he married Helen Mae Sinclair Annand. He met Helen through Barnet, who was married to Helen’s sister Mary. (The girls’ father, Pvt. Samuel E. Sinclair of the 110th Infantry Regiment, was killed in France during World War I. Their mother, Grace E. Williams, then married the artist George A. Annand Jr., who adopted the young girls.)
Helen was an aspiring actor at the time they were engaged, studying under the fabled Lillian Gish. She was also a painter. Her Roza (1960), an oil on canvas, is in the permanent collection of the Provincetown Art Association and Museum.
By 1936, Richter had joined the Federal Art Project, a New Deal program supporting visual artists and sponsored by the Works Progress Administration. He was also president of the Artists’ Union of Boston, which fought constantly with the federal government over its treatment of artists under the program.
Richter himself, however, was given a significant commission: a set of murals for the Burroughs Newsboys’ Foundation, 10 Somerset Street, where he been teaching drawing to poor youngsters. “These paintings show the life of a boy, from the street corner through the foundation’s various departments, to his winning of a scholarship,” The Boston Globe reported.⁴ To judge from one small snippet shown in The Globe, the murals were executed energetically in what might be called the W.P.A. Classic vernacular. Silhouetted vignettes of men and women proudly at work in their trades and professions are overlapped with one another, collage-style, in a kind of Homage to Labor.
(Unfortunately, the building was demolished in 1951. But the liquidation sale included “murals” in a long list of furniture, furnishings, and equipment that were to be auctioned at the end of October. So maybe, just maybe, Richter’s work survives somewhere.)
Upstairs at the Richters’
The attic stairway could be swung up and out of the way when not in use, though the handrail remained. All of the photographs above were taken in 2012 by David W. Dunlap.
Using his father-in-law’s pull with the Federal Art Project, Richter transferred to New York City after completing the newsboys mural. At the Annand home in Darien, Conn., he met the cartoonist William Steig, whose example inspired him to start trying to sell cartoons to the many magazines that published them in the 1930s. He soon found a buyer in the digest-sized Cavalcade. “The first cartoon was storks picketing a birth control office, which shows that the struggle never stopped,” Richter said in 1994.
Soon, Richter was selling enough cartoons — to Look, Collier’s, The Saturday Evening Post, This Week (a syndicated newspaper supplement) — that he was able to quit the Federal Art Project. “You know, W.P.A. paid $20 a week, whereas I could sell two or three drawings a week at $50 a drawing,” Richter recalled. “In those days, it was a lot of money.” (Still is. In 2020, that $50 might buy about $900 worth of goods.)
Among his professional acquaintances was the illustrator Crockett Johnson, best remembered today for his imaginative book, Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955). At the time, Johnson was the art editor of the New Masses, a magazine closely associated with the Communist Party, U.S.A. “When he left the New Masses, he said, ‘Why don’t you take my job?,'” Richter said. “‘You come in twice a week and lay out the magazine and maybe call up one or two artists with gags.’ They all dealt with — oh, with fighting the Depression, and of course, the main target was Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, and so on.”
What Richter didn’t mention in the 1994 interview was that two of his targets as a New Masses cartoonist were home-grown fascists and reactionaries, in particular the Rev. Charles Coughlin, a tremendously popular radio talk-show host (you’d call him now) whose broadcasts grew increasingly anti-Semitic and pro-fascist through the 1930s; and Rep. Martin Dies Jr., a Texas Democrat who was the first chairman of the House Special Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities, beginning in 1937.
Richter depicted Father Coughlin in 1939 straddling a church steeple topped by a cross, having climbed up a ladder under moonlight. Coughlin is looking over his shoulder warily. He has just nailed small planks perpendicular to three points of the cross, thereby turning it into a swastika. The drawing is titled, “Coughlin Carries On.”⁵
Congressman Dies is shown on hands and knees in a 1939 drawing, painstakingly examining the skeleton of a small red herring, while the forces of fascism and terrorism — led by Mussolini and including Coughlin, Emperor Hirohito, and a Klansman — goose-step with impunity over his back. Another 1939 drawing depicts Dies receiving a fireball tossed to him by Hitler, who has been burning books, that Dies will use to incinerate the Federal Art Project, represented by works of art, literature, and music.
A drawing straight out of the culture wars of 2020 shows two Army privates on the march. One is telling the other: “Dies says one of the greatest dangers to our country is nudism.” (The congressman succeeded in removing the principal economic analyst to the federal Board of Economic Warfare in 1942 because the analyst advocated nudism.)
At the New Masses, Richter met Ad Reinhardt, an important and influential Abstract Expressionist painter, who would become a good friend. He also continued to be published in many outlets. “Oh, I was selling all over,” he said. “Working for the New Masses had no exclusive quality about it. It’s just two days a week anyway.”
King Features Syndicate, distributors of content for the Hearst newspaper empire, sold his cartoons under the rubric, “Strictly Richter.” His work appeared in the liberal-leaning PM, a daily newspaper in New York financed by Marshall Field III.
Then, in 1941, Richter tried scaling the summit: The New Yorker.
“If you were a singer, you would want to be in the Metropolitan Opera,” Richter told Brown. “I mean, it was about on the par with that.”
He was by then smart enough tactically not to pitch cartoons to the magazine’s art editor, James M. Geraghty — every cartoonist in America was doing that — but rather to offer him gags that could be drawn as cartoons by other artists. “By now, you know my work because I sell everywhere,” Richter said to Geraghty during their first meeting. “I have a lot of ideas, and would you be willing to buy my ideas if you don’t want to buy my drawings? Because I hate to see them wasted lying around.” Geraghty said yes.
Richter’s foot was in the door at 25 West 43rd Street. He successfully sold gag ideas to the magazine for two or three weeks. Then he ran into Geraghty at the water cooler in The New Yorker office. The art editor offered Richter a chance to draw out a gag idea.
“I was thrilled of course with the idea. This was great stuff in those days to be allowed to draw for The New Yorker. So I did the drawing, which they bought. And when I got back to Darien that afternoon, I had a phone call saying, ‘We’d like to see more of your stuff.’ So about — they kept buying for two or three weeks — the drawings as well as the ideas. And then they gave me a contract. That’s how I got in The New Yorker.”
Mischa Richter, magazine artist
Left: Original drawing of a 1951 cartoon for Hearst’s King Features Syndicate. It shows a lawyer dancing with a mustachioed witness who has obviously misunderstood a question. “I object, Your Honor! This sort of thing always happens when the interpreter is laid up with a cold.” Right: An original drawing, perhaps for the New Masses. “Dies says one of the greatest dangers to our country is nudism,” one Army private says to the other as they prepare for war. Rep. Martin Dies Jr. of Texas had wrecked a federal economist’s career because the man advocated nudism. Both are courtesy of the Richter family.
Left: Richter’s version of St. George and the dragon turned the dragon into a steam shovel. It was the cover of the 1 May 1971 issue of The New Yorker, on the magazine’s website, 1971/05/01. Right: The plaque on his house featured Uncle Sam, whom he frequently employed in allegorical cartoons, often as the spouse of Lady Liberty.
Norma Holt portrayed Richter in his studio at 457 Commercial framed by tear sheets of some his New Yorker cartoons. It was among 136 of her photos in “Face of the Artist,” a 1980 show at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum. The catalog is in the Municipal Collection of the Provincetown History Preservation Project, Page 5965.
A Google search for “We’ve got a class-action suit if I ever saw one,” reveals the popularity of Richter’s 1993 cartoon of two businessdogs walking by an establishment with a “No dogs allowed” sign. The Condé Nast Store sells many such items.
Details of the floor of Richter’s studio in 2012, by David W. Dunlap.
The floor, still in situ, but long after the studio was converted to a bedroom.
The floor, incorporated into Mischa Richter’s exhibition, “I Live Here,” at the Jack Hanley Gallery in Manhattan, 2018.
He was to remain a magazine artist on contract to The New Yorker for the next six decades, helping to create and maintain the publication’s distinctively cosmopolitan-cheeky aura. The New York Times estimated that the magazine published more than 1,500 Richter drawings from 1942 to 2000. “Their common traits were wit, craftsmanship, and intellectual curiosity,” Wolfgang Saxon wrote in Richter’s obituary.⁶
Geraghty’s successor at the magazine, Lee Lorenz, said of Richter: “He’s a master, one of the greatest. For one thing, he is a great colorist in black and white, like [Peter] Arno and [Charles] Saxon. He is a wonderful draftsman. Observe his shadings. He is always resourceful, always full of ideas, wonderfully prolific, and so full of humor.”⁷
He amounted to a celebrity among cartoonists by the 1950s, when his signature on the cover — an R that looked like a Z with a slash through it — was enough to sell a book of cartoons. His own books included This One’s on Me (1945); Keeping Women in Line (1953); The Man on the Couch (1957); Strictly Doctors (1963); Eric and Matilda (1967); Geedyup and Friend (1968); Rumple Nose-Dimple and the Three Horrible Snaps, with Robert Kraus (1969); Bunya the Witch, with Robert Kraus (1971); Quack? (1978); To Bed, To Bed! (1981); The Special String, with Harald Bakken (1981); and The Cartoonist’s Muse: A Guide to Generating and Developing Creative Ideas, with Harald Bakken (1992).
He also illustrated The Great Duffy, by Ruth Krauss (1946); The Deep Dives of Stanley Whale, by Nathaniel Benchley (1973); 5,000 Years of Foreplay, by Ira Wallach (1976); Butcher, Baker, Epigram Maker, by Michael Braude (1984); The Marvelous Music Machine, by Mary Blocksma (1984); Real Bosses Don’t Say ‘Thank You,’ by Ellen Nevins (1988); and The Planet of the Grapes, by Charles Keller (1992).
Together with the cartoonist Robert Osborn, Richter was given a show in 1958 at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn. He contributed illustrations to the Op-Ed Page of The New York Times. And he was honored with the illustration award in 1979 by the National Cartoonists Society.
As an artist for The New Yorker, Richter had to keep in mind the three Ws by which the editor, Harold Ross, would weigh a cartoon: Where is it? What’s happening? Who’s doing the talking? “If you can get that right away, you get the idea that much faster,” Richter said. As a rule, he would place the visual punch line on the right side of the cartoon. “We read from left to right,” he explained, “and so you set the stage. Your eye moves — ha, ha, ha, ha — and unexpectedly something happening on the right, so there’s a surprise.”
“There are many things that go into — can go in in making a cartoon that are just as enriching as doing any kind of drawing,” he said. “It’s true on abstract painting — you still control the eye. If you don’t control the eye, then you aren’t in charge.”
And Richter was an abstract painter, a prolific, skilled, and accomplished painter whose bold, confident works have stood the test of time far more robustly than those of some better-known contemporaries. He was among the earliest members of the Provincetown Group Gallery, a nonprofit cooperative founded in 1964. Its exhibition space was originally in the Inn at the Mews, 359 Commercial Street, before it moved out to the Provincetown Tennis Club, 288 Bradford Street. Richter had three paintings in the gallery’s 10th anniversary retrospective in 1974. He was a Beachcomber. And he served on the board of trustees of the Provincetown Art Association from 1964 through 1976. He also illustrated the cover of the association’s 1974 catalog and guide.
“The visual dynamics of his paintings make a ‘fist,’ so that one’s eye is brought to the central energy and intent of the picture,” said Jane Winter, the curator of the 1999 Richter retrospective at the Art Association.⁸
Among his personal favorite works was Car Race, painted around 1950. “I’m very happy about it,” he told Brown in 1994. “It took me about 20 minutes to do that painting. … I just did it. It worked. Everything worked, you know? … I used Magna colors — I’m not trying to advertise — but the quick-drying oils, the Magna color, so that would — and used a palette knife. So that was very pleasant. You could just put it right on.”
His fine-art oeuvre is so little appreciated now for the simple reason that Richter rarely put his paintings out for view or up for sale at galleries.
“If somebody thinks they’re good 20 years from now, why that will be fine,” Richter said. “In the meantime, I don’t have to stand around and be insulted.”⁹
As a commercial success, Richter had some financial latitude when it came time in 1958 to buy property in Provincetown. He and Helen first purchased a 48-by-375-foot parcel at 284 Bradford Street, with an extension behind 282 Bradford; altogether a half acre of land. Two years later, they purchased abutting lots at 199 Bradford Street and 8 Cook Street, and sold the 284 Bradford property to the artist Kenneth Stubbs and his wife, Miriam M. Stubbs. In 1962, they added 6 Cook Street to their portfolio, meaning the Richters owned three abutting properties at the southwest corner of Cook and Bradford Streets. (They bought 6 Cook from the artist Stanley H. Freborg and his wife, Josephine Lecour Freborg.) Two years later, the Richters broke off the 199 Bradford lot and sold it to Luene and Kenneth Gibbs Gregory. Then they broke off the 6 Cook lot in 1968, selling it to Charles and Mary H. Chetham. They were left with the 8 Cook Street property, which they owned until 1978, when they purchased 457 Commercial Street.¹⁰
Mischa Richter, the later years
In the mid-1990s, Richter began what a called his “Homeless” series.
Another in the “Homeless” series.
Left: Richter illustrated the cover of the Provincetown Art Association’s 1974 summer catalog. Right: In 1999, he was given a one-artist show at the Art Association, “Mischa Richter: A Retrospective.” The catalog cover, designed by Shank Painter Company, featured his signature.
A wider public was given a chance to admire Richter’s paintings in the fall of 1985, when he and 13 others were given a show — “A Summer Gathering: Artists at Work in Provincetown” — in the gallery of the National Council on the Aging in Washington.
Difficult years followed. Helen and Mischa’s younger son, Thomas Jacob Richter, died in January 1987, a month shy of his 43rd birthday, of arteriosclerotic cardiovascular disease.¹¹ Though Helen suffered from multiple sclerosis, Mischa would not have her put in a nursing facility. Instead, he cared for her at home until her death in 1992.¹²
“During her illness his work schedule became flexible and he moved his studio to the dining room to be close at hand,” Alan Bodian wrote in a 2004 profile. “Undaunted by interruptions (and there were many), it was during this period that he produced many of his most memorable New Yorker drawings.”
“His method was deceptively simple. First came an idea, sometimes visual or merely a gesture or a politician’s pomposity. Hand and eye in close communion, he began a series of sketches and, by a process of additions, deletions and erasures, an image formed, accompanied, of course, by a caption.
“The rough sketch was picked up on Monday by Federal Express to reach the New Yorker editorial meeting on Tuesday. If accepted and O.K.’d, it would be returned on Friday.
“Perfectionist that he was, Mischa went upstairs to his studio to put the final touches on the completed drawing. For him humor was a deadly serious business.”¹³
Certainly one of Richter’s best known cartoons dates from this dark period. “No Dogs Allowed” proclaims the sign at the left of the composition. Then the eye moves right, taking in two upright dogs in business suits, furry and floppy-eared. The one with a briefcase barks to the other: “We’ve got a class-action suit if ever I saw one.”¹⁴
Richter’s enduring appeal is obvious on the Condé Nast Store, which carries 311 of his drawings. They can be purchased as prints or posters, framed or unframed; as throw pillows, note cards, iPhone cases, coffee mugs, T-shirts, or infants’ onesies.
The 1980s and ’90s gave Richter a chance to reprise his role of grandfather, to Daniel’s younger children: Will Richter, now a web designer for Citibank, and Joanclair Richter, now the campaign organizer of the Climate Reality Project, and the founding president of MovieMind Green in Los Angeles. The company works with movie producers and festival organizers — including the Provincetown Film Festival — to reduce the use of nonrecyclable materials, lessen food waste, and diminish energy consumption.
“It was magic, that house,” she told me in 2020. “And Mischa was the magician.”
“What I remember most was Mischa in his old, nearly see-through T-shirts saying, ‘We’re off in a cloud of powdered horse-manure,’ as we’d leave the front door and walk off to dinner at Ciro and Sal’s. I remember sitting on the porch for Helen’s memorial, the house bursting with extended family …
“I remember the stone bird bath and how Mischa would sit on the front steps of the porch throwing torn-up pieces of bread for them in the morning light. I remember him swimming with Ilona [Royce-Smithkin] in the bay at high tide. I remember copies of the yearly Christmas cards that Mischa would sketch/draw/paint, in the drawers in the box room upstairs, to sit for years as markers of time and memories.
“I remember the sun room with the big bay window that Mischa had put in so Helen could see the water from the bed. And how I loved to sleep in it, because Helen slept there in her later years and she passed away when I was pretty young. I remember the old stove, the black-and-white floor in the kitchen, and Mischa teaching me that you add tomatoes to a salad for color.”
Left: Sacha and Joanclair Richter. Right: Joanclair in 1993.
Joanclair and the younger Mischa Richter.
Mischa Richer in 1995 with three of his grandchildren: Will, Joanclair, and Sacha. All four photos courtesy of Joanclair Richter.
The 1990s found Richter undertaking abstract representational paintings of homeless people, inspired in part by a newspaper photo he had seen of a man sitting in a doorstep with arms crossed over his knees and face buried in his arms. “I was struck by how the combined forms of his posture, without reliance on facial expressions, and by formal means alone conveyed the essence of despair,” he said.¹⁵
The decade ended in the triumph of a one-man retrospective at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum in 1999, curated by Jane Winter, which ran from 30 July to 23 August. The show included 22 paintings (7 of them from the “Homeless” period), 13 collages or mixed-media works, and 16 drawings. “Richter’s paintings are in the spotlight,” Carol K. Dumas declared in The Boston Globe.¹⁶
Richter lived two more years. His death on 23 March 2001 was widely noted and mourned. It also spared him, by several months, the spectacle of America under domestic attack by international terrorists. But Eleanor Munro had already described the greater theme of Richter’s “Homeless” series as that of “the movement of peoples — exiles, prisoners, explorers, pilgrims, refugees — across seas and borders to some alien set-down in which a few, sadly, always fail to take root and so become ‘homeless’ in any of the thousand ways people can be lost on this earth.”¹⁷ More than 20 years later, it is possible to say that Richter is still insightful. Still compelling. And still funny.
In 2013, the Richter Nominee Real Estate Trust, the entity that had owned the 457-459 Commercial Street property since 1995, created the three-unit Moonwatcher Condominium. The older 3,177-square-foot house at No. 457 was designated Unit 1. The newer studio and house at No. 459, with 2,419 square feet of space, was designated Unit 2. The master lease contemplated the possibility of a new Unit 3 on the eastern lot.
Elena G. Ende of New York and Eric S. Ende of Los Angeles bought the older house in July 2013 for $2.143 million. They have since undertaken a substantial renovation. The window through which the younger Mischa Richter photographed Provincetown Harbor during his family’s last days at No. 457 is now gone.
Western end of the house in 2008 (upper left), in 2016 (upper right and lower left), and in 2018 (lower right). All by David W. Dunlap.
The beachfront facade in 2011. By Dunlap.
The same elevation in 2018. Note the addition of a shed dormer to the attic floor among other changes made by the Ende family. By Dunlap.
457 Commercial Street in 2019. By Dunlap.
¶ Last updated on 25 July 2020.
457-459 Commercial Street on the Town Map.
Also at 457-459 Commercial Street:
• 457 Commercial Street (Demolished).
• 459 Commercial Street (Extant).
• 459 Commercial Street (Demolished).
Thumbnail image: Photograph, 2008, by David W. Dunlap.
• Grace Coolidge (Davenport) Winslow (1877-1970)
Find a Grave Memorial No. 148420943, Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge.
• Henry Joshua Winslow (1880-1963)
Find a Grave Memorial No. 148424332, Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge.
¹ “Biography,” by Emma Ross in Mischa Richter: A Retrospective, curated by Jane Winter, Provincetown Art Association and Museum, 1999, Page 7. The biography is also available online, through the Provincetown Artist Registry, Mischa Richter.
² Katharine Winslow Herzog, email to the author, 30 March 2018.
³ Winslow to Flagship, 10 May 1971, Barnstable County Registry of Deeds, Book 1509, Page 548; Flagship to Bryant, 10 May 1971, Book 1509, Page 550.
⁴ “Former West End Newsboy Paints Murals at Burroughs Foundation,” The Boston Globe, 26 October 1936, Page 22.
⁵ Radical Art: Printmaking and the Left in 1930s New York, by Helen Langa, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004, Figures 14, 98, and 104.
⁶ “Mischa Richter, 90, a New Yorker Regular,” by Wolfgang Saxon, The New York Times, 27 March 2001.
⁷ As quoted by Philip Hamburger in “Mischa Richter: An Appreciation,” in Mischa Richter: A Retrospective, Page 14.
⁸ Mischa Richter: A Retrospective, Page 13.
⁹ As quoted by Ross in Mischa Richter: A Retrospective, Page 6.
¹⁰ Moore to Richter, 19 May 1958, Barnstable County Registry of Deeds, Book 1004, Page 344; Valentine to Richter, 2 March 1960, Book 1071, Page 33; Richter to Stubbs, 1 December 1960, Book 1098, Page 453; Freborg to Richter, 28 June 1962, Book 1162, Page 551; Richter to Gregory, 26 October 1964, Book 1277, Page 282; Richter to Chetham, 12 July 1968, Book 1407, Page 193; Richter to Battaglia, 23 May 1978, Book 2711, Page 215.
¹¹ Town of Provincetown Annual Report, 1987, Page 50.
¹² Ross in Mischa Richter: A Retrospective, Page 7
¹³ “Mischa Richter – Profile of a Provincetown Legend,” by Alan Bodian, Lively Arts, An Internet Cultural Magazine, March-April 2004.
¹⁴ The New Yorker, 12 April 1993.
¹⁵ As quoted in “The Homeless Paintings,” by Eleanor Munro, in Mischa Richter: A Retrospective, Page 10.
¹⁶ “Richter: More Than a Cartoonist,” by Carol K. Dumas, The Boston Globe, 25 July 1999, Page 83.
¹⁷ Munro in Mischa Richter: A Retrospective, Page 10.