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Edgar Leeteg – the “American Gauguin”

Often referred to as the “American Gauguin” for his idyllic rendering of the Tahitian people in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, Leeteg is best known for his rediscovery and mastery of the age old technique of painting on velvet. Long lost in the shadows of art history, the paintings of Edgar Leeteg are now recognized as the archetype for modern velvet paintings – one of the more popular and enduring art mediums in the world.

“Hina Rapa”

from “Leeteg of Tahiti” – more preview pages from the book here

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Leeteg completed an estimated 1,700 works on velvet by the time he died in 1953.

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“Villa Velour” was Leeteg’s piece of paradise private compound on Moorea, with a manicured lawn that was as smooth as the imported black velveteen on which he painted his pictures. The ten-seated Italian marble outhouse, five pastel bungalows, and fabulous circular bar-quarium he built on the beach overlooking the lush peaks of Paopao Bay… -  artist, Charles Krafft – quoted from “Leetag of Tahiti”

read more in this article – “Edgar Leeteg – The Father of Modern Velvet Painting”

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Leeteg – self-portrait in his early 30s

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More art by Leeteg here in American Gallery

Although he sought artistic renown, Leeteg is best remembered for his Tuesday night boozing and womanizing in Tahiti, chronicled in James Michener’s 1957 book “Rascals in Paradise.” The 48-page chapter “Leeteg, the Legend” is one of the few reasons Leeteg is not entirely lost to history.

Painter of Polynesian Figures Had the Touch – Los Angeles Times article

Leeteg, a native of St. Louis, died in a motorcycle crash in Tahiti in 1953 at 48. His death created a commercial void quickly filled by imitators looking to cash in on the reported $7,000 each that his velvets were fetching at the time. As prices dropped and Leeteg’s legacy faded, painters turned to mass production of more commercial images. Leeteg’s subtle style was replaced by the garish caking of paint on velvet most often seen on street corners and border marketplaces today.

LA WEEKLY article on Leeteg

“I HAVE BOOZED MORE, FOUGHT MORE, LAID MORE girls and thrown more wild parties than anyone else on the island, but it’s all good publicity and gets me talked about plenty, and that’s what sells pictures,” claimed Edgar Leeteg, the “American Gauguin” who reputedly devised the ubiquitous kitsch icon the black velvet painting, and whose work is the subject of “A Rascal in Paradise,” a small retrospective at the Huntington Beach Art Center.

…Within a few years, Leeteg’s velvets were fetching upward of 10 Gs, and that weren’t hay circa 1950. Leeteg built a huge villa with the profits, replete with a rotating cast of drunken, sycophantic freeloaders, and applied himself to his legend as an epic debaucher. His reprobate lifestyle of excessive chemical indulgence, fisticuffs and the bedding of the dusky wahines of Polynesian lore did not prevent Leeteg from churning out two paintings a week…

  Velvet for connoisseurs – article in The Baltimore Sun

His name was Edgar Leeteg and he lived on the island of Moorea in Tahiti. Before he died at the tender age of 48 in 1953 (accidentally flung off the back of a motorcycle), he managed to churn out 1,700 velvet paintings.

In doing so, the former commercial sign painter made himself the stuff of myth — a self-described “fornicating, gin-soaked dopehead” who created much of his wildness to sell paintings. And sell them he did — for as much as $15,000 a pop at the time of his death — shipping them out by the dozens to hang over Midwestern mantelpieces.

Writer James Michener celebrated “Leeteg the Legend” in a 1957 book, “Rascals in Paradise,” a title borrowed for the just-closed Huntington Beach exhibit: “A Rascal in Paradise: The Velvet Paintings of Edgar Leeteg.”

The painter’s favorite subjects: naked or bare-chested island beauties, smiling alluringly or coyly sipping from coconut shells. His buyers: South Sea tourists and tiki-themed restaurants marketing escapist island fantasies the world over.

 The Lure of the Velour – article - The Age 

When clearing out a dusty bookshelf, we found newspaper clippings that confirmed that Leetegs sold for more than $US20,000 in the early ’60s. So it was with this in mind that we three lads salivated at the prospect of transforming our two-square metres of velour into hard currency. Sure, it had been in the family forever, but 20 grand is 20 grand…

…We hit the Internet, and were immediately distracted from our task of finding Yankee zillionaire velvet collectors by what we discovered about a certain Edgar Leeteg. It turns out that this fellow was one weird egg who managed what few artists have managed before or since – he made a lot of money hanging around with beautiful women in a tropical paradise.

 Paradise Painted – Seattle Weekly article

Known to many as the American Gauguin, Leeteg (1904-1953) led a Jack Kerouac life, ghost-written by William Burroughs. An adventurer by nature, he fled civilization to lead a wild life in Tahiti. Even in a culture not known for its puritanism, he stood out, drinking, fighting, and wenching more than any six men…

Voluptuous Visions In Velvet — Seattle Museum Strives To Bring Respectability To The Art – article in The Seattle Times

His saga was chronicled by no less than James Michener, in the 1957 volume “Rascals in Paradise.” The book pictures Leeteg as a quarrelsome neighbor, a feckless husband and a belligerent drinker. Since the artist’s reputation vanished along with Tiki chic, little information exists to counteract this portrait. But Leeteg’s art has gained respectability, and one reason is Seattle artist Charlie Krafft…

SECRET HISTORY OF ART: BLACK VELVET PAINTINGS & EDGAR LEETEG

Cook’s (Paopao ) Bay on the island of Moorea, site of Leeteg’s extravagant estate Villa Velour.

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•  Villa Velour  •

Wikipedia - Edgar Leeteg

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-  Available at Amazon  -

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Please direct comments or questions directly to JoDavid at 

jodavid@comcast.net

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