Tom Eblen

The rich and famous collected his work. Then he became Kentucky’s forgotten artist.

Edward Melcarth with his painting, "The Last Supper," in this undated photo from the 1960s.
Edward Melcarth with his painting, "The Last Supper," in this undated photo from the 1960s. The Forbes Collection, New York

Edward Melcarth might be the most famous Kentucky artist you’ve never heard of. That’s no surprise: The director and curator of the University of Kentucky Art Museum had never heard of him, either.

But when they were shown his work last May, they quickly rearranged their exhibit schedule to organize his first major show in more than 50 years: “Edward Melcarth: Points of View,” which runs Jan. 13 through April 8 at the museum in UK’s Singletary Center for the Arts.

A companion exhibit of 13 works, “Edward Melcarth: Rough Trade,” will be on display Jan. 13 through Feb. 10 at Institute 193, a nonprofit gallery at 193 North Limestone.

Melcarth counted among his friends and patrons the flamboyant publisher Malcolm Forbes, writers Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal, and art collector and socialite Peggy Guggenheim, for whom he designed some famous sunglasses shaped like bat wings.

Time magazine named Melcarth in 1950 as one of 19 young American artists to watch. He won a major award from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1951, and his work is in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. His murals are the centerpiece of one of New York’s fanciest hotels, the Pierre on Fifth Avenue across from Central Park.

Yet Melcarth was largely forgotten after he died of cancer while living in Venice in 1973. There are no Melcarth biographies and few scholarly articles, and many details of his life remain a mystery. He has no Wikipedia entry.

Edward Melcarth's carved wood sculpture "Amendment" was based on a violent strike by the United Auto Workers union against General Motors in Flint, Mich., in 1937. UK Art Museum The Forbes Collection, New York

Some of that could be because Melcarth lived a rebel’s life as an openly gay communist. During the McCarthy era, the FBI raided his studio and confiscated his passport, Lexington historian Jonathan Coleman said.

Coleman came across references to Melcarth while doing his doctoral research and again when he started working with artist Robert Morgan to organize the Faulkner Morgan Pagan Babies Archive of Kentucky LGBTQ history.

That led Coleman to approach The Forbes Collection, which manages what is left of the huge art collection the publisher amassed before his death in 1990. Forbes knew Melcarth and bought several of his pieces. Then, after the artist’s death, Forbes bought his entire estate, including hundreds of drawings, paintings and sculptures.

After seeing the material in Forbes’ New York vaults in May, Coleman approached UK Art Museum director Stuart Horodner and curator Janie Welker about doing a show.

Edward Melcarth's painting "Excavation" is part of the University of Kentucky Art Museum's exhibit of his work. UK Art Museum The Forbes Collection, New York

“He’s telling us about (Melcarth) and we’re like, uh huh, and then he started showing us pictures,” Welker said. “Stuart and I just looked at each other across the table, like, oh, my God! Can you believe this?”

Horodner said the discovery was a museum director’s dream.

“There’s not that many people you’ve never heard of who are that interesting that get presented to you,” he said. “We try to plan a year or so out, but when we saw this material we pretty much said, ‘We have to do a show immediately.’”

Melcarth was born Edward Epstein in 1914 in Louisville. His maternal grandfather was Hilmar Ehrmann, an Austrian immigrant who became a bourbon distiller. His father, also named Edward Epstein, died when he was young, and his mother, Eva, remarried a member of the British Parliament, Sir Reginald Mitchell-Banks. She moved to England, but Melcarth apparently stayed in Louisville.

He went to Harvard University and studied art in London and Paris. Melcarth joined the Merchant Marine in the 1930s and spent time in the Middle East. He then lived in New York for many years with Thomas Painter, a gay man who corresponded for decades with sex researcher Alfred Kinsey. In 1949-50, they also had another roommate: Lexington artist Henry Faulkner.

One mystery is where the name Melcarth came from. Coleman said the artist might have invented it from Melqart, an ancient Phoenician god, because he was a student of history.

"Motorcyclists" by Edward Melcarth is part of an exhibit of the late Louisville-born artist's work at the University of Kentucky Art Museum. UK Art Museum The Forbes Collection, New York

Melcarth’s works resembles both those of Renaissance masters and 20th-century figurative painters like Thomas Hart Benton. Many pieces feature muscular young men in scenes that mix mythology, religion, sexuality, labor struggles and drug use. His paintings often have unusual compositions and perspectives. His art is a “bonanza” for an academic museum, Horodner said, because there is so much there for students to discuss.

Horodner and Welker said they appreciate Coleman bringing Melcarth to their attention and the Forbes family’s generosity in loaning Melcarth’s work for the exhibits. They hope to acquire some of Melcarth’s work for the museum’s permanent collection.

“He addresses so many things that are contemporary and important now, things that seem to be coming out of the news,” Horodner said.

“Plus,” Welker said, “it’s really good art.”

Tom Eblen: 859-231-1415, @tomeblen

If you go

Edward Melcarth

What: Two exhibits of the late Kentucky artist’s work.

University of Kentucky Art Museum, Singletary Center for the Arts, 405 Rose St. “Edward Melcarth: Points of View” Jan. 13 through April 8. Gallery hours 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Thurs.; 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Fri.; noon-5 p.m. Sat., Sun.; closed Mon. and university holidays. Admission is free. Opening reception 5:30 p.m. Jan. 18., 859-257-5716.

Institute 193, 193 N. Limestone. “Edward Melcarth: Rough Trade” Jan. 13-Feb 10. Gallery hours 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Weds.-Sat. Admission is free. Opening reception 6-8 p.m. Jan. 13.