Born just before the second world war, Erhardt grew up on a farm deep in the countryside in Germany.  Years after the war ended, as a teenager Erhardt decided to pay a visit to some relatives in Bay Shore, Long Island, New York.  He had no intentions whatsoever of staying in the United States for more than a few days, a conclusion which was strengthened by the fact that the young man spoke no English.  He recalls having wandered out of his relatives’ home, through the surrounding neighborhood, and jumped into a soccer match with some locals.  Finding the country agreeable, his former conclusions quickly dispelled, Erhardt made the permanent move to Long Island.

When it came time to look for a job, Erhardt found the language barrier to be quite an issue.  “What could you do, with little to no language skills, when you want to work?  I applied as an apprentice at the local butcher shop, out further west on Long Island.  It’s easy to understand ‘pot roast’ or ‘three chicken breast’ when you speak as little English as I did back then.”  As Erhardt worked, he saved.  He eventually came to begin his own business, on Main Street in Islip.

Erhardt was a wonderful sitter, striking a perfect balance between sitting still, and being animated in conversation.  A few years ago, I painted one fellow in a building overlooking Central Park, and as I painted he held himself so still he seemed like he was going to faint- I had to convince that fellow that “still” is not better than “comfortable.”  And so it was that Erhardt and I comfortably talked about raising children, about his dislike for strange and exotic meats, about soccer.  “Oh Kevin, you play soccer?” was the question he asked me.  Like any father of three with only past athletics conquests to speak of, I had the insecure urge to relay a glorious, short lived career as a soccer player in a local college- but I decided to keep it honest and tell him how I was second line at a middling community college.  “I got kicked in the face during a soccer match in the Bronx, and well, my nose having been shattered, my brilliant career as the next Pele was quickly eclipsed.  However, this only skyrocketed my role as water bottle/soccer ball toter” I dryly said.  Erhardt began “Well, I was drafted to play for some pretty good teams, even some national things… but I didn’t have my citizenship papers in order yet.  That was that.”  I’m glad I went the self deprecating route- here was a guy who seems to have been an Olympic hopeful, and I was a first line community college hopeful.  Sheesh.

I’ve rarely had any sitter so interested in the craft of painting, as Erhardt.  He was fascinated, utterly fascinated, by the evolution of the painting, the mystery of an oil portrait.  But on my end, as I worked I had this nagging feeling that there was a problem.  I wasn’t capturing his personality, something was missing.  “Hey Erhardt, do you happen to have that hair cap that you wear when you are in the butcher shop?”  He lit up into a smile.  “I sure do.  I thought you might want to paint me in that.”  The moment he put on the cap, the painting was resolved, the portrait was found.  Nobody in this town can think of Erhardt, without his cap.  This portrait was one of those rare works that sang, from beginning to end.

There is a brilliant painting by Anton Van Dyck, that of Cornelius van der Geest.  If you can get past that horrific Baroque ruff around the guy’s neck, and if you can look at the eyes- it is just one of my favorite portraits, in the history of art.  Here’s why.  There is moisture in the eyes.  When you get close to the painting, you can see these little flecks of flake white paint, that is to say lead paint, which is globbed on ever so precisely.  When you step back, you could swear that the eyes are alive.  And so it was that I walked over to Erhardt’s painting, a tiny brush with a single hair, loaded with lead white paint.  Looking at his eyes, then leaning towards the canvas, I placed that touch of moisture onto the linen.  Done.

earhardt, final, low rez

earhardt, eyes, low rez

Erhardt Hardekopf, “The Nine Faces of Islip”