L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e ~ D o s t o ï e v s k i

L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e  ~  D o s t o ï e v s k i

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Les Perruches

I've recently finished the painting that will be used for the invitation to my first solo exhibition at Winston Wächter in Seattle.  The show opens in June and continues until the end of August.  I'm very happy that this particular painting will represent the body of work.  I started work on this painting early last year, before nearly all of the others that will be in the show.  It's also my first completed example of a specific kind of painting that I've wanted to attempt for a long time.  On more than one occasion, during my last few shows, when being asked about what I hoped my future work might be, I said that I wanted to find some way to take 17th century Dutch genre painting - specifically the figure in an interior - and meld it with a late 18th century French aesthetic.  Perhaps an odd, even perverse, idea, but I really wanted to see what this would look like.  And I thought, starting Les Perruches, that I might finally be ready, technically, to pull it off.

Les Perruches [the parakeets] - acrylic on panel - 30x24 - 2012


I knew that I wanted green drapes.  I think that was the first element that came to me.  The only certain one.  There were several related ideas - incorporating a fairly shadowy interior, with a good amount of color, especially reflected color - that shuffled around in my head for quite some time.  But all of the half-shaped concepts featured more or less quantities of green drapery at a window or door, letting in a limited amount of light upon the centrally placed, full-length figure.

On a nice sunny day early last year, I put on the old Gap dress shirt that I'd modified to serve as a  low-cut dress bodice, and G took pictures of me as I posed in the thin line of light that was let in through the nearly closed pocket doors that divide the two main rooms of our apartment.  I was the first particular of the composition.

The other particulars were assembled in differing ways.  As I hadn't yet made a big, puffy red satin skirt that I could pose in - I have one now - I worked from a photograph of a 19th century gown that's in the collection of Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute, inventing the ribbon trim and sash.  I adapted the coiffure from a fashion drawing of the time; both gown and hairstyle would be appropriate for the mid to late 1780s.  Most often, at this time, bodices would be trimmed with lace or some sort of a ruffle at the neckline, and/or filled in with an often quite puffed out, gauzy fichu.  But I decided to go with a plain neckline - certainly not incorrect - which also has the benefit of showing a bit of chest hair; I'd never want to entirely hide the fact that there's a man in that dress.

I really love the word perruche and, after deciding on the inclusion of a bird to be juxtaposed with a stylishly improbable hairstyle, wanted to use it for the title.  I quickly found that I had mistakenly thought it was the French word for parrot, when it is actually the word for parakeet or budgie.  Turns out the French word for parrot is perroquet.  Which is terribly confusing.  So I did a bit of research and found that the parakeet group is much broader than just the little domesticated, stripey birds I've always seen in cages.  (Actually, it seems that parakeets as well as cockatoos, cockatiels, etc., are all just different forms of parrot.)  And I was happy to discover that there were plenty of varieties that were called parakeets yet looked sufficiently parrot-like to serve my specifications of size and color.  I chose a Red-masked Parakeet, or Conure à tête rouge.  I found a photograph that met my compositional needs, though I did have to reverse the lighting.  I love the particular angle of his turning head.

As I said, I had different ideas about what the room might look like.  But then I saw a photograph of  a sequence of rooms at Versailles that I thought would be perfect.  The petit appartement de la reine is a beautiful and celebrated suite of small rooms hidden behind the queen's state rooms, facing onto an interior courtyard.  Facing that same enclosed courtyard and turning the corner from the petit appartement, is a little known series of four private rooms.  They had rarely if ever been more than a service passage - behind unexpected, awkwardly placed doors there are cramped little staircases leading to the floors above and below - but it was also the only private way to get from the queen's rooms to that of the king's; a door hidden in the wall next to the queen's bed in her state chambre lets into this passage.  (Famously, Marie Antoinette fled by way of these rooms, escaping the rampaging mob that October night in 1789.)

As far as I can tell, these rather haphazardly shaped rooms had never been updated or re-decorated.  At least not after the beginning of the 18th century.  So I took the basic structure and gave it a modest face-lift.  I simplified the paneling and added new elements that are in the neo-classical style that was au courant for the 1780s.  I think of this as an "economical make-over", as if the theoretical owner wanted to be very stylish, but didn't want to spend too much money.  I could have added color or gilding to the paneling - I seriously considered adding some background tinting to portions of the over-door carving - but I think that, in the end, I prefer the subtle shifts in color reflected onto the plain white walls.                                                                                        

I wanted something particular for the round cartouche over the door, most likely some mythologically themed tableau.  I was beginning to scrape around in my brain, thinking I'd have to design something from scratch.  Which, honestly, I wasn't looking forward to.  But somehow I managed to remember a cameo brooch that had belonged to my mother's paternal grandmother.  It was always in my mother's jewelry box when I was a child, though I never remember her wearing it.  She gave it to G as a wedding present.  I adapted the design, and I'm happy to have included something of my own family's history in this piece.

I couldn't figure out what painting should go in the picture frame I intended for the wall at the left of the composition.  I thought I might come up with some frothy romp - something very Fragonard-ish - or another mythological tableau.  But then, out of nowhere, I had the idea that I could use one of my own paintings.  Le Passage was a previous exercise in that Dutch/French blending I spoke of, though an exterior rather than interior; it's inspired by a painting by de Hooch.  I really enjoyed making a miniature version  of my own work, and it was especially fun to imagine the painting in shadow, with an extreme foreshortening.

Le Passage - acrylic on panel - 24x18 - 2009

One of the things I really like - and kept - about the actual rooms is the peculiar variations in the wooden floor, but then I had to work pretty hard to get the sections of parquet de Versailles laid out properly; Photoshop wasn't nearly the help I'd hoped for.  Having a carpet to hide some of it was a blessing.  I adapted the design of a very stylish neo-classical rug that would have been perfect for that fictional re-decoration of the 1780s.  I simplified it, changed most of the colors and added different elements.  It was fun to design it to coordinate with the "new" paneling.  While not overly match-y, both incorporate clusters of leaves, ribbons, scrolled vegetation, etc.

Surprisingly difficult to find an image of a cat sitting in this position.  As it was, I had to change the lighting and reposition the tail.  I love having animals in my work, but the cat was added mainly as a compositional device; I needed something in that corner.  Mainly for balance.  Only after the fact did I wake up to the whole cat/bird dynamic.  That rather clever subtext was some sort of divine intervention, I guess - but I suppose I should just say that I'd planned it all along....


  1. Wow, even I didn't know you hadn't made the cat/bird connection until after the fact.

    Thank you for this. What lovely and fascinating information - and of course what lovely detail pieces.

  2. You put a lot more thought into your art than I do...or would if I could get past the stick figure stage of drawing.

    Your work baffles me...its like you are enhancing and perfecting your personal visual language with each project.

    Thanks for sharing the process behind the brilliance.

    1. Wow, thank you Brian. I love the way you put that. (And I said wow, too, just like G and Rick.... )

  3. You have great talent and should bring your work to my town of Santa Fe, NM....