He was an artist of worldwide acclaim. Revered by those who loved his work, reviled by those he shunned. Born in 1909 he spent much of his childhood around the docks in Hamburg, drawing and dreaming of sailing the seas. He immigrated from Germany to New York in 1924 and attended the Chicago Art Institute briefly. Julian graduated from Art Center in Los Angeles in 1932. He began showing his art in Los Angeles while still a student. In 1939, he was hired to paint a 90-foot mural for the Mines and Minerals Building at the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco. By 1941, he was showing at the prestigious Gallery of Modern Art and Newhouse Gallery in New York City. Although ill-suited in personality for the sophisticated New York Art scene, his work was admired and very well-received by the critics and public alike.

He was prolific, extraordinary as a draughtsman and colorist with a flair for the dramatic. His early work demonstrated a style of rich, vibrant color and swift, purposeful brushwork. His later works would develop a master’s touch of glazing skin tones for women that created a luminosity not seen since the masters of the Great Renaissance. Julian was an outgoing, vibrant man who had a passion for art and a zest for life. Those who knew him spoke of his presence. His studio always smelled of turpentine and paint, along with wafting pipe smoke, and often the cheap perfume of a naked model. Mozart always played on his turntable. This vibrant personality was a shield for the man who had little trust for others and who had only two loves in his lifetime.

Julian Ritter painting a model in a red dressThe 1950s would see a remarkable string of work produced, with Julian hired to produce work for multiple venues and galleries throughout the United States. Showing at the Swiss Chalet Gallery at the Bismarck Hotel in Chicago, Julian attended the Ringling Bros Barnum and Bailey Circus, and is inspired to start the Mr. Whimsy Clown series. He is hired to paint a nautical theme of mermaids and King Neptune, including a 30-foot wall mural, at the Bimbos 365 Club in San Francisco (the paintings and mural are still there today).

A trip to Mexico mid-decade saw a preponderance of masterful landscapes and portraits of the local people, whom he grew to love. Setting the tone for the rest of his career, a Gay ’90s-themed series of paintings, which would become the Silver Slipper Collection, was created over years, and hung at The Silver Slipper Casino and Gambling Hall in Las Vegas from 1950 until 1988. Throughout his lifetime his paintings have been shown in hundreds, perhaps thousands, of galleries around the world. In 1963, his painting “Bachelor Housekeeping” became a part of the Permanent Collection at the famed de Young Museum in San Francisco.

Raised in depravation amongst “drunks and whores,” Julian always had a fondness for the poor and the ne’er-do-wells of the world. He disdained those of wealth and success, the very people he most needed to support his life as an artist. He professed he was “just a whore” for selling his work.

Julian had several lovers during his lifetime. Physically strong with disarming charm, he had a passionate fire and sexual drive. He had only two women in his life that he truly loved beyond all else. Hilde Sabena Meyer-Radon and Julian were married in April 1943, while he served in the US Army. Hilde and Julian would have two children, Christine (1947) and Michael (1948). Hilde inspired Julian, but in 1966 the unthinkable happened: After two years suffering from cancer, Hilde passed away. Julian was distraught and could not comprehend his loss. He became a shut-in and a drunk.

Julian Ritter preparing paintOver a year went by before Julian began to recount his childhood dreams to sail the world and paint. Pulled out of nightmarish depression, he began painting to raise money for his new adventure. He sold the Santa Barbara home he and Hilde had bought to buy a 45-foot yawl, The Galilee. One last commission would secure the funds he needed to start his trip. That commission was for Adele Kokx, for whom Julian painted a portrait of Adele’s daughter, an introverted yet beguilingly beautiful 17-year-old named Laurie Kokx. Julian and Laurie developed a camaraderie and connection in their short time of portrait sittings.

In February 1968, Julian (now 59 years old) set the sails of The Galilee southward from Santa Barbara. Months later in Acapulco, after trading paintings for food, board, booze and women, the bar owner was irritated at the attention the murals received in lieu of her “girls.” When Julian could not pay her upon demand, he was thrown into jail. Julian called the only number he could find: Laurie Kokx. The headstrong Laurie persuaded one of Julian’s patrons to provide his private plane and crew to fly her to Mexico to bail Julian out of the Mexican jail.

In Acapulco, Laurie announced she would sail with Julian around the world. Laurie was mesmerized by his strong virile presence and over-the-top personality. She admired his confidence and creativity, and they became lovers and soulmates sailing the seas. They would sail to Costa Rica where they would spend time, Julian painting and Laurie preparing for the next leg of the journey. Laurie blossomed in an unbridled burst of hormones and youth. Julian drank in her flower and was emboldened. All who saw them together thought how they truly loved each other. After six months in Puntarenas, they embarked on the next leg of the adventure, sailing west to French Polynesia and the Society Islands.

Julian Ritter painting a model in a feather boaThey spent a year in the Tahitian Islands, all the while Julian was painting and sending work home for shows on the mainland. He and Laurie were gay, and free to do as they dreamed. His works sold out consistently, and he was asked for more and more paintings. Julian amassed a large portfolio of exquisitely painted works he saved to take home himself. In June of 1970, Julian and Laurie, along with a young German crewmate, set sail for Hawaii. Revived with Laurie’s companionship and love, Julian had made peace with Hilde’s passing. The Galilee would head out for the last leg and the most arduous part of their journey from Puntarenas bound for Honolulu. Within weeks, trouble developed and soon The Galilee was in distress. Battered and beaten by a strong storm, mast broken, and all electronic equipment aboard disabled, the crew drifted for 89 days — the last 49 days with little or no food or water. Miraculously, they were spotted and rescued by the supply ship USS Niagara Falls and taken to Honolulu literally hours before death. Sadly most of the paintings were lost in the storm.

After a month in Hawaii, Laurie and Julian would fly home and begin their life together in Santa Barbara, settling in Summerland, where Julian would paint and greet his patrons and customers. Laurie thrived for awhile, encouraging Julian to paint about his visions while lost at sea. Julian would undergo a resurgence in his work, painting with deep passion personal works of his visions and his transcendence from death’s door. Julian’s biggest despair was the effects the trip had on Laurie. Upon rescue, Dr. Phillip Becker would give no status as to “the girl.” Later, he declared Laurie had been only a couple of hours from death, and was indeed fortunate to have survived.

Demand for Julian’s work continued to soar. Julian declared himself  “done” with dealers and galleries, intending to sell only to his own customers and patrons. The galleries wanted his work even more. Some renowned galleries resorted to forging work and signing his name. Long before the marketing of “signed limited editions” came into vogue, International Art Publishing signed an exclusive deal to reproduce several of his nudes and clowns in large prints. Gorman Ceramics Company paid him handsomely to reproduce several works as collector plates and statuary. And his fame from the Silver Slipper Collection grew still, with the theft of a painting from the Silver Slipper, and later with Howard Hughes in litigation, in part, over the Silver Slipper Art Collection.

In 1972, while attending a gallery show in Las Vegas, Julian was taken with a tall, lanky redhead who introduced herself as a showgirl at the Silver Slipper. Janet Boyd would become muse and model for Julian, and would pose for a “Big Portrait” — and Julian’s renaissance of Las Vegas works began anew. “The Portrait of Janet” is now the most iconic showgirl painting in Las Vegas history. The gorgeous showgirl would pose for Julian hundreds of times, including sittings with her infant daughter Bianca. In 1984, Janet would be instrumental in coordinating what would be Julian’s last big Las Vegas painting, “The Las Vegas Fantasy,” a commission piece featuring four showgirls and a clown.

Julian Ritter painting a modelJulian continued painting his personal works from his memories aboard The Galilee, as well as painting what his customers wanted: the nudes, clowns, and showgirls. He ultimately chose to rely on sales to a handful of patrons, and only one dealer he would trust, Howard Morseburg. Over the years, Laurie’s condition would slowly deteriorate. She became lost in her own world, diminished in spirit and at a loss for purpose. Briefly, Laurie opened a flower shop in Summerland that seemed to uplift her. But sadly, in the summer of 1984, Julian would discover her in coitus with their gardener. Devastated by her betrayal, Julian declared their relationship over. He sold everything, including the amazing Torito Road home and studio in Summerland, and moved to Hawaii to live with his son.

Upon moving to Maui, Julian spent the first seven months building a large and amazing two-story studio to work in. The fates again clamored for Julian when in December of 1985 Julian suffered a massive stroke. He would live for another 15 years. He tried, but never really painted after the stroke. He taught classes as best he could, and sold a few paintings. He did make a trip with his nurse to Las Vegas to sell paintings to Nick Behnon and Becky Binion. He spent most of his time reading and convalescing. His son Michael would take care of his father dutifully until Julian passed away on March 4, 2000. Laurie passed away mysteriously in 2006. After the boat trip aboard The Galilee, she cajoled Julian to paint, to keep him from drinking, and to create purpose for him. In her own life thereafter, she could find no defense of the bottle, and no purpose to go on. She would neither take care of herself nor stop drinking.

Through a legacy of adventure, Julian pursued his passion for creating art and beauty at all costs. He shunned the “Big Time Art World” to pursue his vision as an artist and to paint what he was called to create. In talent and in execution, Julian Ritter stands as one of the great artists of the 20th century.