The Opulent Fantasy World of Tim Hildebrandt’s Tavern on the Green

11/17/2020     Modern & Contemporary Art

NEW YORK, NY -- Gracing the lobby of Central Park’s iconic Tavern on the Green, this eponymous painting by legendary fantasy artist and illustrator Tim Hildebrandt greeted the Tavern’s millions of guests from the early 1980s through 2009. This unique, magical depiction carries all the hallmarks of Hildebrandt’s genre-defining fantasy painting and is as synonymous with the beloved restaurant as its lush topiaries and Tiffany-stained glass.

One half of the acclaimed Brothers Hildebrandt, Tim, along with brother Greg, began drawing as early as age 3, inspired by a viewing of Disney’s “Pinocchio.” The young brothers would go on to build a haunted house in the family garage for Halloween each year, with local visitors happily paying admission to enter. Beginning their professional career as artists and animators in 1959, the Brothers reached worldwide acclaim for creating the original movie poster for the first Star Wars film in 1977. Given just nine days to complete the task, the Brothers Hildebrandt turned in their masterpiece after only 36 hours. The poster remains one of the most iconic images of the landmark science-fiction franchise to this day, depicting hero Luke Skywalker with lightsaber triumphantly held aloft, the ominous specter of helmeted villain Darth Vader looming behind him. The Brothers would further cement their place in illustration history with Lord of the Rings calendars created throughout the late 1970s, which sold millions of copies. The lavishly illustrated calendars helped to create a cottage industry of sorts for future collectible calendars by peer fantasy artists Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo and further cemented the Brothers’ legacy among the most premier illustrators of the 20th Century.

Tim Hildebrandt’s lush fantasy depiction of Tavern on the Green was commissioned by Warner LeRoy, who purchased the restaurant in 1974, investing $10 million into renovations and reopening the rejuvenated space in 1976. LeRoy was the grandson of Harry Warner, one of the Warner Bros founders and a legendary figure in the film industry. Known in Hollywood as “Little Lord Faunt-LeRoy,” then 4-year-old Warner would visit his father, producer/director Meryvn LeRoy on the set of The Wizard of Oz, even taking the opportunity to skip along the famed Yellow Brick Road. LeRoy had also owned and operated Six Flags Great Adventure, the Russian Tea Room and several other high-profile restaurants and destination spots throughout the US.

LeRoy was a flamboyant character, who devised what he declared “spectacle entertainment,” creating unique, over-the-top performative elements within his venues to amaze and delight his patrons. He had even once considered having live orangutans roam about the garden of the Tavern – though this undoubtedly would have astounded his guests, he wisely opted against attempting it. For his first restaurant, Maxwell’s Plum, LeRoy rented an apartment directly across the street and hired actors to stage fights in the windows to further entertain his diners. When appearing at his venues for special events, LeRoy would typically arrive in full customized costumes – examples including a Henry VIII inspired suit constructed of seashells and a Moroccan outfit adorned with flashlights and bells. An avid art collector and aficionado, LeRoy’s choice of Hildebrandt to create a work for the Tavern’s entryway was indeed a prescient one, truly in-line with the vision he had for his fantastical reinterpretation of Tavern on the Green.

Tim Hildebrandt would reward Warner LeRoy for his choice of artist with a masterpiece, creating the perfect entryway from the sloping grounds of Central Park into the opulent fantasy world of Tavern on the Green. Drawing from his work on Tolkien-related fantasy projects, Hildebrandt builds a dark, mysterious foreground with massive, stocky tree trunks. A group of elves, quietly creeping alongside a white unicorn, venture towards a mushroom-capped stone bridge, leading along a fanciful path not at all dissimilar from the Yellow Brick Road a young LeRoy played on as a small child. A bright blue peacock rests atop the bridge, while mermaids splash and play in the creek below. The elves’ glorious destination lies just off in the distance – the Tavern on the Green – lit with an ethereal glow peeking out from a wooded thicket. Warner LeRoy sought otherworldly magic for his Tavern, and Hildebrandt did not disappoint, achieving the mythical resplendence rarely seen outside the fantasy locales of Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and many of the other great fantasy classics of our youth.

Given its remarkable history as one of New York’s great landmarks, it is astounding to think the Tavern on the Green began in the 1880s as little more than housing for the sheep who grazed Central Park’s Sheep Meadow. Though the infamous city planner Robert Moses would first oversee rebuilding the structure as a restaurant in 1934, it would take the herculean efforts and madcap vision of Warner LeRoy to institute a sense of magic and wonderment to the Tavern. And much like he had done for JRR Tolkien, George Lucas, and others, Tim Hildebrandt deftly painted the fantasy world for which the Tavern on the Green inhabited.

Important Paintings
A highlight of the auction of Important Paintings on December 2, 2020 is Tim Hildebrandt's Tavern on the Green, circa 1980.

Lot 56
Tim Hildebrandt
American, 1939-2006
Tavern on the Green, circa 1980
Signed © Tim Hildebrandt (lr)
Oil on board
34 x 48 inches (86.4 x 121.9 cm)
Tavern on the Green, New York
Sale: Guernsey's, New York, Tavern on the Green, Jan. 14, 2010, lot 422
Purchased from the above by the current owner
This work was commissioned by Warner LeRoy, former owner of Tavern on the Green, and a famous restauranteur. The painting hung in the lobby of the Tavern from the 1980s until its closing in 2010.
Estimate: $10,000-15,000