Burton Silverman


Dear Artist,

Floating through the Chelsea galleries, up and down the democratic elevators, through the mysterious doors where minimalist girls, like wax figures, sit at laptops in sparse foyers and do not acknowledge your presence. Where liveried guards suspect your bag and camera, here and there there’s a Burton Silverman.


“Triptych” 2011
oil on linen
by Burton Silverman (b.1928)

Coming from a background of illustration, Silverman, an artist’s artist, has found a unique place in the realist revival. To read his partly biographical The Art of Burton Silverman, you might think he’s still fighting the art-wars of the sixties. He rails against what he considers the lightweight nature of modernism and wonders where his own place might be in the final tally. “I feel that much of modernist art has been involved with rudimentary formal exercises and to call it ‘High Art’ is a twist of irony,” he says. “Portraits,” he notes, “get a bad rap in museums these days.” It seems to him that “for the moment only photographs of people are allowed into museums.”


“Signora” 1984
oil on canvas
by Burton Silverman

Burton Silverman need not worry. Long after much of modernism has floated off down the Hudson, private collectors will still be grabbing for his work. Personal, direct, human, and laced with his own idiosyncratic life-view, this stuff is simply great. The day that he stopped taking illustration jobs was the day that “the focus of my interior world intensified.” Through a variety of explorations — his wife and children, Italian bicyclists, party-girls, beach-scapes, concerns of urban loneliness, separation and roadside nudity, he sets a standard for both content and craft. Light shines in his shadows and magic glows in his lights. His casual surfaces belie his toil.

Burton should simply know that quality of his sort will always be in style. While modernism is easier and faster to make, with realism, the joy of technique and proficiency enters more deeply into the mix. But in one sense modernism is just as democratic because it’s accessible to all. Even kiddies fresh out of Elmo’s World, with a small amount of coaching, can make creditable modern art. This is no small consideration, and it’s good that this stuff is up the elevators, too.


oil painting
by Burton Silverman

Best regards,


PS: “My best training came from doing illustrations because it taught me to compose my paintings more effectively, to improve my colors, and to be ruthlessly selective.” (Burton Silverman)

Esoterica: It’s often desirable to put your detail into the shadows and burn out the detail in the brightly lit areas. Photo-based painters using Kodaky reference from contrasty subjects (such as beaches) are often unable to see shadow detail. When working from life the human iris opens automatically to peer into those shadows. For better or for worse, obscuring or neutralizing shadow areas in photo-derived paintings has become an element of style.

This letter was originally published as “Burton Silverman” on October 8, 2004.


The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“Artists must literally go into a zone of intense seeing so the subjective and objective almost fuse together.” (Burton Silverman)




  1. Burt Silverman is a great ambassador for realism worldwide, and the importance for artists of basing one’s designs on a solid foundation of both abstraction and highly-developed drawing and observational skills. I totally agree that this kind of painting will never die, that “fuses the subjective and objective into one.” His is a physical and spiritual language communicated in paint, and is about the beauty of the world, both inner and outer. He can be regarded as a champion of representational art, expressed in his studies of art history, his teaching and his work.

      • “It is the job of art to turn time into things.” –Robert Genn

        It is I who thank you, Mr. Silverman, for the life and creative efforts you expend in doing exactly this. That we are able to appreciate the world through your eyes, through an abstract and practiced observational lens, is a gift from you to us that sharpens our own observation, and appreciation. In your case, one is able to see the results of a gift for art and love that has truly made the invisible visible. Congratulations on a long and fruitful career!

  2. Jamuna Snitkin on

    a spiritual teacher once commented to me that portrait painting will become one of the highest expressions of the art of the future.

  3. I am shocked at such an article wherin modernism is blown off as easier and faster to make! How unknowledgeable and undemocratic of you! Artist should always respect each others craft and there are many moderist painter out there who are and were great! They honed and develope their art with the same attetion to skill and technigue as did Sllverman! Shame on you and him!

    • Ah! A true tongue- lashing from Ms. Lash. The late Mr. Genn would no doubt have had a suitable
      “knowledgeable and democratic” reply, but the many Genn admirers will likely fill in for him.

    • Totally with you one this one. All of the elements of composition, color, line, texture, etc-heart and soul- go into a “modernist” painting. Not surprised that this opinion of expressive/abstract/moderernistic art still divides our preferences. Just don´t believe that it is easy/fast/pain free/nonchalant, Since leaving realism two decades ago, I have never felt more pressure to deliver quality art, if nothing else than to convince the nei sayers that something they can´t put their finger on is worth their consideration.

    • Sadly, much of so-called modern or contemporary ‘High Art’ is a reflection of the society that has produced it; shallow, entitlist, allegedly rife with deep meaning that is used as a cover for lack of skill. A better synonym for ‘High Art’ would be ‘Con Art.’

  4. It was a pleasure to be present last week when Burt Silverman was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2018 Figurative Art Conference and Expo (FACE). This was the highlight of the opening ceremony . He gave a brief talk and showed slides of how his work has progressed over the course of his career. What a treat!

  5. I bought a print one time because I liked the ornate frame it was in and thought I would use it on a painting one day. Looking at it closely after returning from the tag sale, it was an early figurative print by Burton Silverman. The young girl was sketched sitting in a chair on a blank background. Was he a commercial artist who made his living selling prints in expensive looking frames? I have artist friends doing something like that today, but they don’t frame them, they just mount the Giclee prints to wood stretchers before they deliver them to galleries for sale. They never sell their originals, only producing and selling prints of their paintings. Do you do that? Are you keeping originals and selling inexpensive prints? Seems rather commercial to me. I like painting too much, but that is one way of making fine art paintings more affordable for the average art buyer who loves an image that the artist produced.

  6. Dear Sarah,
    Although my college background in Fine Art study was mostly classical. Post college, my earlier years in professional art were centered around abstract work and thinking. I am fortunate to have experienced Modernism and Classicism with many excellent teachers on both sides of the spectrum. As a result, I feel fortunate to combine those artistic “choices” for creating my current artwork .
    I’ve studied and continue to be mentored, by Burt Silverman. My own interpretation of his message would be as follows: Those that value and focus well on their art study, Modernist OR Realistic or what-have-you, self-studied OR instructed, will ultimately best “reflect” the essence of their life experiences and grand visions, therefore resulting in strong personal growth and quality art. Experienced first hand I believe “careful observation” is key in Burt’s message to his viewers, colleagues and students, whatever direction an artist chooses to pursue.
    Congratulations to Burt Silverman on his most recent Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2018 Figurative Art Conference and Expo (FACE). His continuing dedication to the pursuit of fine art is unmeasurable and a gift to artists of any age in time. It’s also my hope and belief that the value of Fine Art Portraiture will ultimately gain greater presence in future art venues in many of the fine galleries and museums throughout the world.

  7. Burt is not only an icon, he is a leader and an activist in the interest of the realism revival after decades of struggle in a would, which ignored realists. His impact and his willingness to take decades of heat has paved the way for a promising future for this movement and todays younger artists will benefit long term.

    We honored Burt with a lifetime achievement award at the Figurative Art Convention last week, where he received a heartfelt standing ovation.

    • The standing “O” was a very humbling approval of what I’ve been trying to achieve. thanks for the Award and the chance to inform a younger generation a bit of what I’ve been honored for. The “Lifetime” label is being extended “grace a Dieu”.

  8. I’ve been a fan of these letters for a long time, but I was taken aback by “Even kiddies fresh out of Elmo’s World, with a small amount of coaching, can make creditable modern art.” As someone that takes a lot of inspiration from modern art, it initially felt a bit like a smack in the face. Coming from someone else, I would have just ignored it and reduced my estimation of the writer.

    But because it was Robert, I took a little longer to consider the words. I still think they are unnecessarily inflammatory, but I have to admit that there have been times when I have walked into a gallery and thought that the bar was a little too low for modern artists. Not Elmo’s World graduate low… but the bar has been too high on the realist side for too long.

    Let’s hope we can avoid the huge swings of trend that have occurred in the past, wherein large communities of artists get ignored for long periods of time.

  9. thx for opening up a window for me and for mentioning the layout of the gallery, my friends think i’m nuts but i always find galleries so intimidating, this gives me a push to try, try again. mpkane

  10. Thank you, Sara, for reposting your dad’s letter from way back when. I like what Robert says: “with realism, the joy of technique and proficiency enters more deeply into the mix” vs. modernism. I can relate to this being a realism painter myself. Burton Silverman your paintings shown in this post are remarkable and exceedingly inspirational…..Suszanne

  11. “careful observation” is key in Burt’s message to his viewers, colleagues and students, whatever direction an artist chooses to pursue….thank you once again, for this lovely piece,

    as always , others’ comments continue to amuse and or inspire me. … some, a tad snarky, but, oh well :)

    best regards , glass is half full-

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