Tobacco Card Artist: Albert Operti

Hassan Andrees BalloonF

This story has virtually nothing to do with a pioneer of aviation than a pioneer of art.

I recently completed and posted a feature article on Salomon August Andrée and his two attempts to reach the North Pole by balloon. You can read that article HERE.

It is a fascinating but horrible look at man’s folly at underestimating good ol’ Mother Nature.

But, what drew me to this story, was the art on the card… simply beautiful.

It was the first tobacco card I had seen with the artist’s name on it, implying that he or she must have been an artist of some renown… and that maybe, just maybe, this artwork was commissioned by the tobacco company for this card.

In my searches for tobacco cards, I have also searched for the original artwork… I figure it’s out there somewhere. But I’ve never seen any.

I’ve often wondered who did the art for these wonderful tobacco cards and baseball cards et al from the past 100+ years… perhaps names lost in the mists of time.

But then I realized that the card above for Andrée’s balloon was signed… signed by the artist, Albert Operti.

There’s not a whole lot of information on Operti, save that he was born in 1852, dying in 1927.

He was born in Italy, schooled in Great Britain… and developed his skills doing theatrical background painting usually for the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. I’ve heard of it, and know it’s still around today… though I admit that I have never seen an opera save whatever Bugs Bunny was running around with alongside Elmer Fudd. What a barber shop.

Operti’s painting are very difficult to find, as most seem to have been commissioned by the Explorer’s Club in New York, and are still in their possession nowadays. Operti even spent the last few years of his life living at the Club headquarters – on their dime – eventually dying there.

A lot of Operti’s work dealt with the natural beauty of the Arctic, ships and plain old exploration scenes… and no wonder, he was with Robert Peary in 1896, when he explored Greenland.

Of course, many of his paintings are just pure imagination, but based on his knowledge of the natural environment. For example, he painted of the search for the Franklin expedition, showed the ships Erebus and Terror sailing – events that happened around 1845, seven years before Operti was born.

The Museum of Natural History in New York also asked him to create plaster casts of natives from Greenland, and he also painted many of the diorama backdrops and other arts for them.

I have not seen any other work of Operti’s aside from that done and printed on various tobacco cards, but all of those are of a high quality like the card example above.

Operti is still the first and only artist I have found to have done work to appear on a tobacco card. If you know of any other artists who have done such work, I would appreciate it if you could let me know who they are and what they have done.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to see if I can find some real artwork for sale out on the auction sites. And then scream as I realize I can’t afford them.


About mreman47

Andrew was born in London, UK, raised in Toronto, Canada, and cavorted in Ohtawara, Japan for three years. He is married, has a son and a cat. He has over 35,000 comic books and a plethora of pioneer aviation-related tobacco and sports cards and likes to build LEGO dioramas. He has written and been an editor for various industrial magazines, has scripted comic books, ghost-written blogs for business sectors galore, and hates writing in the 3rd person. He also hates having to write this crap that no one will ever read. He works on his Pioneers Of Aviation - a cool blog on early fliers - even though it takes him so much time to do. He also wants to do more writing - for money, though. Help him out so he can stop talking in the 3rd person.
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