Jacob Collins – an American realist painter, a leading figure of the contemporary classical art revival

Jacob Collins (born 1964) is an American realist painter working in New York, NY. He is a leading figure of the contemporary classical art revival. He founded the Water Street Atelier, the Grand Central Academy of Art and the Hudson River Fellowship.
Jacob Collins was born on August 11, 1964, in New York, NY. He comes from a family of artists and scholars. His great-uncle was Meyer Schapiro. As a child, he started copying works by Old Masters in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. From a young age, Collins knew that he wanted to be an artist, although his interest and skill lay in a classical style that was out of favor in the late 20th century. Moving away from Modernism, he identified instead with works of 15th–19th century masters and their techniques and aesthetics.
He studied in Europe and at the New York Studio School following his graduation from The Dalton School. He earned a BA in History from Columbia, attended the New York Academy of Art (NYAA) and the Art Students League of New York. His teachers included painters Aaron Kurzen, Ted Seth Jacobs, and Michael Aviano and the sculptor Martine Vaugel. This education brought together Collins‘ modernist background and his classical inclinations. He also copied from the masters at the Musée du Louvre, the Museo del Prado and the Uffizi Gallery.

After his studies, his New York studio became the center of a new evolving classical art scene. These painters worked to regain the skills and spirit of Classical art. A number of them have gone on to successful careers and leadership roles in the traditional realist art movement. The Paint Group at Hirschl & Adler Modern in New York, NY was a significant exhibition of the works of this group. During this period, Collins painted portrait commissions and started showing professionally at the Salander-O’Reilly Galleries in New York City.

In the early 1990s, he founded the Water Street Atelier, which has trained dozens of artists in a classical manner. He is the director of the Grand Central Academy of Art, a new school in New York City and a hub of the classical revival art scene. The Grand Central Academy operates in affiliation with the Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America. In 2007, he created the Hudson River Fellowship. The purpose of this school is to facilitate the building of a new movement of American art, modeling itself after the artistic, social and spiritual values of the Hudson River School painters.

He lives and paints in New York City. He and his wife, the writer Ann Brashares, have four children.
Jacob Collins’ style is considered Classical Realism, and his subject matter focuses on the figure, portraiture, still life and landscape as well as the occasional interior. Collins’ nude figurative works, especially, reveal a point of view that is distinctly contemporary, and his setups are simple, incorporating at most a bed sheet and a length of fabric.

Collins’ drawing and paintings have been shown with museums and galleries in North America and Europe, and he has been commissioned to paint portraits of J. Paul Getty, Jr., President George H.W. Bush and U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger. Collins is represented by Adelson Galleries (New York), the John Pence Gallery (San Francisco) and Meredith Long & Co. (Houston).


I always wanted to do two things: to be skillful and to make beautiful art. I never had any confusion. Not that I am so skillful. I’ve been looking at Holbein drawings, Diego Velásquez portraits, and ancient Greek sculptures my whole cogent life, and you can’t look at those things and really feel good about yourself. The other thing that interests me is to make things beautiful. Often, when you’re in art school you get people saying, ‘Sure, this is pretty, but let me see what your ideas are.’ When I was a kid I didn’t know why that bothered me, but later I realized that it’s based upon the fallacy that beauty isn’t an idea. Beauty is a set of ideas, it is vastly complicated, and to understand whether something is beautiful, you’re using anthropology and psychology, and culture and nature, and even biology. You have to understand what ‘beauty’ is to know why you think something is beautiful.
I have nothing against classicism or realism, but if the galleries on his site are anything to go by I don’t care for most of Collins’ work. I find it somehow — pedestrian; more conventional than classical. (I liked Maureen Mullarkey’s description of Collins’ nudes: “McNudes for the carriage trade… fastidious erotica to go with the Jado bidet and high-thread-count linens from Yves Delorme.”) I don’t know whether that bit about not feeling good about himself is false or real modesty, but take a look at his drawings. Lack of skill is not the problem, even if he’s right and doesn’t compare to the transcendent examples he chose. A large part of my reaction to Collins is his choice of subject — I like him best when he applies his “high art” methods to quotidian objects, or when he gets out of the way and lets a portrait speak for itself. I like him least when he is rehashing ideas of beauty that have been imitated so much that they have become stale.
I originally started writing this as the other kind of inspiration piece, on the basis of the quoted comments above. I like Collins’ idea that beauty is sufficient as an end, that it is a complex statement in and of itself. I just disagree with him on the particulars of which things are, in fact, beautiful. If there’s any point to saying more about art than “I like/don’t like that”, then I think Collins’ rather impersonal portrayals of rather standard subject choices must qualify only as pretty — decorative — and not really beautiful.
So, in writing this out, I find at least one thing I’m trying to do with what, if I were not intensely self-conscious about it, I would call “my art”: I want to make beautiful things, and I want to understand why they are beautiful to me. But that’s hardly satisfactory, being so broad a comment that it probably applies to anyone who makes anything. I’ll keep trying.
(Hat-tips: Andrew Walkingshaw, whose recent musings on creativity and compartmentalisation struck a chord with me; and my old friend Ralf, who always takes “my art” just seriously enough.)

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