Richard Merkin, a painter and illustrator whose fascination with the 1920s and 1930s defined his art and shaped his identity as a professional dandy, died Sept. 5 at his home in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y. He was 70.
His wife, Heather Merkin, said he died after a long illness.
As an artist, Mr. Merkin traveled back in time to the interwar years, creating brightly colored, cartoonish portraits and narrative scenes of film stars, jazz musicians, sports heroes and writers. His illustrations appeared in The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and Harper’s, but he was at least as well known for his outré fashion sense and eccentric collecting habits.
“My sartorial aspirations lie somewhere between the Duke of Windsor and the Duke of Ellington,” Mr. Merkin told The New York Times in 1967. He favored custom-made double-breasted suits of his own design, bowler hats and homburgs, and boutonnières. He would occasionally stroll the boulevards of Manhattan sporting a cane. In his closet hung inspirational photographic portraits of his idols, the diplomat Anthony J. Drexel Biddle and the film star Adolphe Menjou.
“He was the greatest of that breed, the Artist Dandy, since Sargent, Whistler and Dali,” the writer Tom Wolfe, a friend, wrote in an e-mail reminiscence on Tuesday. “Like Dali, he had one of the few remaining Great Mustaches in the art world.”
The men’s wear designer Alan Flusser, another friend, said in a telephone interview on Thursday: “He was one of the few men who knew how to wear clothes, in a bespoke Bohemian manner.” “You have to be way beyond fashion to do this.”
Mr. Merkin’s pet obsessions covered all manner of ephemera and exotica, from Fiestaware and Big Little Books to baseball players from the Negro and Cuban leagues. He was particularly keen on vintage pornography, an enthusiasm he shared in two books. “Velvet Eden” (1979), written with Bruce McCall, showcased his collection of early amateur pornography, and “Tijuana Bibles” (1997), written with the photojournalist Bob Adelman, paid tribute to the sexually explicit comics that Americans bought across the Mexican border from the 1930s to the 1950s.