Louis Armstrong photo courtesy of the Louis Armstrong House Museum

In the course of a lifetime in the Arts, Johann Berthelsen became acquainted with many extraordinary individuals. In this feature,
we will introduce them to you.

One of Johann Berthelsen’s most interesting – and personal – works involved a collaboration between three people: the artist, his son Lee, and the great jazz trumpeter, Louis Armstrong.

By 1954, Armstrong had already established a reputation as an iconic figure of the American musical scene. Born in New Orleans in 1901, his early life was marked by poverty and delinquency. Though he had learned to play cornet as early as age 11, it was not until he was sent to a reform school that he had the good fortune to encounter Professor Peter Davis who provided the intensive musical training that would lay the foundation for his unique style. An avid and enthusiastic musician, the young Louis played every chance he could and, in the process, met many individuals who would prove influential in establishing jazz as a musical genre.

By the early 1920s, Chicago was the jazz capital, and its king was Joe “King” Oliver. Oliver brought the young Armstrong to Chicago to play in his band and helped him establish a reputation with the public as well as with other popular musicians. Armstrong eventually migrated to New York where he had already become popular as a result of his recordings. He played at such venues as Connie’s Inn and the Cotton Club in Harlem and began to include more singing in his performances.

Louis Armstrong Painting by Johann Berthelsen.

During the Depression, he traveled widely, seeking opportunities in movies and working with leading big band leaders including Guy Lombardo. After extensive travels, including a European tour, he settled in New York in 1943.

The post-War period saw a decline in the popularity of big bands but, thanks to his firm musical foundation and extensive experience, Armstrong was able to easily transition to playing with smaller groups or to appearing alone. His popularity continued to build and, in February of 1949, he appeared on the cover of TIME magazine.

In 1954, he was seeking a very special 10th wedding anniversary gift for his wife, Lucille, and decided to commission a painting. In all probability, he was referred to Johann Berthelsen by Milton Schepps. Known as New York’s “jeweler to the stars,” Schepps was a close personal friend who frequently displayed – and sold – Berthelsen paintings bearing the label, “Traders in Treasures.” Schepps had previously introduced Johann to Frank Sinatra who subsequently commissioned over 30 paintings.
Lee Berthelsen was present in the apartment at 249 E. 57th Street the day Louis Armstrong stopped by to discuss the painting. Lee recalls, “Very early in the conversation, Mr. Armstrong said, ‘I hear that you used to be a voice teacher.’ That began an extensive discussion about classical music in general and opera in particular. Mr. Armstrong’s knowledge was incredibly broad, and it was obvious that he was an extremely serious opera fan.
“Finally, the conversation came back around to the painting. Mr. Armstrong, who was soon to open at the Paramount Theatre, asked if my father could do a painting of Times Square incorporating the Paramount. My father said that he could.
“Several weeks later when the painting was finished, I was fortunate enough to be present when Mr. Armstrong returned. He was immensely pleased and told my father that he had depicted Times Square exactly as he most loved to see it – with the lights reflected in the pavement after a rain. He pointed to the many figures in the painting, smiled and said, ‘Look at all these people. I bet they’re all coming to see me at the Paramount.’ He repeated his love for the painting but had just one more request: he asked if his name could be lettered onto the marquee as it would be for his upcoming engagement.
“My father shook his head and said, ‘Mr. Armstrong, I don’t know that I could do that. I’m an artist, not a photographer.’” Lee continued, “As I was, at that time, a very brash 18-year-old, I said, ‘I’ll do it.’ Mr. Armstrong agreed, and I lettered the words, ‘LOUIS ARMSTRONG AND HIS TRUMPET’ to the marquee. Quite pleased, Mr. Armstrong suggested that perhaps the signature should read: ‘Johnann Berthelsen and the son of the artist.’ We didn’t think it would be wise to go that far.”
Louis Armstrong’s subsequent career was characterized by a steady increase in his popularity. Through the medium of television, he regularly reached millions of his fans. He appeared in multiple feature films and recorded extensively. His recording of “Hello, Dolly!” continues to delight audiences.
Louis Armstrong died on July 6, 1971. His honorary pallbearers included political leaders and legends of the music and entertainment world.
On April 28, 2005, the Berthelsen painting of Times Square which he had commissioned was sold by Shannon’s Fine Art Auctioneers of Milford, Connecticut. At that time, it achieved the record price for any Berthelsen painting. It remains today a work as unique as the artist who created it and the musician who commissioned it.