A New Lieftuchter portrait comes to light

Friday, Mar. 14, 2014
A New Lieftuchter portrait comes to light + Enlarge
This portrait of Ursula Metzger Li was painted by Felix B. Lieftuchter in 1968. Courtesy of the Diocese of Salt Lake City Archives
By Gary Topping
Archivist, Diocese of Salt Lake City

Felix B. Lieftuchter was the artist who painted the murals in the Cathedral of the Madeleine during World War I. Before, and presumably after, that project he decorated other churches and was also a portrait painter. Little is known of his life and career after he left Salt Lake City, but by the late 1960s he was living and working at a hotel in Mexico City called the "Casa Gonzalez." I have recently been in touch with a woman named Ursula Li who met him there and whose portrait he painted. That portrait, which she shares with us here, is remarkable to me for the high degree of its realism, which contrasts sharply with the stylized figures on the Cathedral murals. Here is her story as she related it to me:

"It has been so long ago since I stayed at the ‘Casa Gonzalez’ and my recollections are few. I believe the year I stayed there was 1968. It was the last time I visited Mexico, having been there three times before. I was single then and my maiden name was Ursula Metzger.

"From 1965 to 1970 I worked as curatorial/research assistant in cryptogamic botany (lower plants like fungi, mosses, algae, lichens, etc.) at the Farlow Herbarium at Harvard University. This herbarium is now incorporated into what is called the Harvard University Herbaria. At the time, my professor and head of the institute, Dr. Mackenzie Lamb, was famous for his work on lichens, and he sent me on several expeditions to Mexico and Costa Rica in order to find certain specimens that would provide a link of their occurrence from the mountains of North America to those of South America. These expeditions were usually done in conjunction and collaboration with the local universities there.

"When in Mexico City I usually stayed with the family of a friend and only at the last time I visited that city I stayed at the Casa Gonzalez. Someone from the University of Mexico had made the arrangements for me. Apparently Casa Gonzalez was known for its safety and quality of services, and I certainly can attest to that.

"Casa Gonzalez had a lovely dining room and it is there where I met Mr. Lieftuchter. I soon found out that he was a permanent guest there and that he was a painter. He asked me to sit for a portrait and I was happy to oblige. I was only there about two weeks or so and had a lot of meetings and activities going on. I don’t remember the number of sittings I had, probably no more than six, and none of these could have been very long. The sittings took place in his room. There were a number of unfinished portraits lining up against the wall.

"He did not talk much about himself and was very reserved/measured in his conduct, but kind and I got the feeling that there was an occasional twinkle in his eyes/heart. I also had no idea that he was in his late 80s when he did my portrait. His dress was always impeccable. He may have given the portrait to me because he realized that I was not a regular tourist and short of cash. Also, I cannot find his signature on the portrait. Maybe he felt that it did not represent his best achievement, (it wasn’t completely finished) or he simply forgot it. Months later, I sent him $50 and I was kind of sad when I never heard from him again. He told me that he had done paintings in churches, and I remember that he said he did some in California. [He had done churches in West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York.] It also begs the question whether he did church paintings in Mexico."

The date of Lieftuchter’s death, and where he is buried, aren’t recorded in our archives. If anyone has information on this, I’d appreciate hearing about it.

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