Growing up on the Lower East Side in the early 20th century, Ernest Chiriacka was simply possessed by the need to draw, using whatever was available, a leftover lump of charcoal, a spent match or a piece of chalk at school. As a teenager he became known as the Rembrandt of Third Avenue. As a young man, he had a thriving career doing illustrations for Esquire and the Saturday Evening Post. And later he made a handsome living from his studio in New York, painting landscapes and classic scenes of the American West. For Mr. Chiriacka, his work illustrating pulp stories was simply a natural outgrowth of his other commercial drawing, and a way to make money. ''This was during the Depression, when people needed something to do,'' he said. ''These things came out for a nickel. You'd get two or three stories and you were able to sit and enjoy yourself for a couple of hours. It was a bad time, the Depression, truly a bad time.''
Something of an artistic polymath, Mr. Chiriacka was creative in several media. As a boy, he said, he had always dreamed of being a cowboy in California and fashioned chaps from a black bag he purchased for 50 cents, decorating it with tacks taken from a newsstand. But mostly, he loved to draw. He would copy paintings from museums, first through a program at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, then through a job reproducing the great masters on the walls of a coffee shop, which he took, he said, for the paints and brushes he was given. He studied at the Art Students League, the National Academy of Design and the Grand Central School of Art. His art has helped him, too, he said. Mr. Chiriacka, the son of Greek immigrants, managed to quickly get a job painting posters for movie houses after proposing marriage. ''I was making $27 a week, that was good money,'' he said, laughing. ''The minute I got that job, we married.''
Over the years, he has gone through several stylistic phases, painting landscapes and other scenes from his imagination. “I wouldn't know what I was going to do, or what would come of this, but I would paint for two hours, or two and a half hours until I felt that was it,'' he said. ''I didn't stand back and go forward like artists used to do, put a stroke and then walk away and look at it, and then come back and do something else and then walk away. I didn't do that. I simply painted.''
''That's the way it was, not knowing what was going to come through, but something would come through,'' he said. The pulps and pinups were different. ''You can't fake that,'' he said, looking at a painting of a dark blond vamp on his easel. For those, he used models, and, for the pinups, at least, a chaperon. In those days, Mr. Chiriacka explained, agents would encourage their models to concoct scandalous tales to land their names in the papers. During the mid 1960’s the slick magazines decided to cut out all realistic illustrations. They turned to color photography and graphic fashion design. With his money making career ending with illustrations, it was at this time that Chiriacka turned to painting more landscapes and still-lives.
Chiriacka became profoundly drawn to the plight of the Native Americans after the Sioux Indian uprising at Wounded Knee in 1973. His paintings of the Native American people have a dignity that radiates with genuine mysticism.