The Eyes Have It

Our trip down to Montréal two weekends ago was not for the happiest of reasons – we were interring Laurent’s mother’s ashes in the family plot and hosting a farewell reception that his father had requested rather than a funeral – but none the less it was an occasion of some pleasure.  Pleasure at seeing family and friends we had not seen since the last family funeral or wedding and spending time reminiscing, laughing and getting a little misty-eyed with the Beaulieu-Gougeon-Ostergren clan as we celebrated both Rollande and Denis’s lives.

Another pleasure of the weekend was visiting with our friend Michel.  We were trying to work out how long we’ve known each other and figure that it’s been almost 40 years; Laurent knew him from University and I met him a bit later  through our much loved and greatly missed friend Jim Asplin.  Michel has always astounded me with his wit, his ability to make jokes in French and English, his breadth of knowledge and his incredible taste.  I’m not sure where his sense of style comes from but it is there in spades and a visit to his apartment always reveals some new treasure.


I hadn’t seen his current apartment so there was much that was “new” to me but what caught my eye was a collage portrait of Queen Elizabeth by Montréal artist  André Monet.  Monet had been commissioned to commemorate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee following his engagement portraits of Prince William and Kate Middleton in 2010.  His technique is very unusual in that he uses photographs, text and images from magazines, newspapers and documents and acrylic paint to create portraits of both the celebrities and any person whose face catches his fancy.


I asked Michel to give me some information on the painting (for it is indeed a painting) and this is what he wrote:

Each piece is unique. He starts by doing a collage of old newspapers and books over which he paints the portrait based on famous photographs and then varnishing, the traits of his characters are recreated with such precision that one might see a realistic photography arising from a distance. But it is indeed painted (if you look a the original photograph, it is somewhat different) and not photocopied so to speak.

And because they are unique the portrait in Michel’s living room speaks directly to him in several ways.


The map that was used to create one of the collage areas shows the South Shore of the Fleuve Saint-Laurent close to where Michel has his family roots.


In 2012 Michel was awarded the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal for his work and Monet has included a portion of the official document confirming the honour as an element of the collage.


And as his inspiration Monet used the 1951 photograph of Princess Elizabeth taken by Yousuf Karsh during her first visit to Canada.  It was one of the many photographs that he was to take of Princess and then Queen Elizabeth over the years – they have appeared on stamps, banknotes and been reproduced in countless books.

Queen-Monet-3 Queen-Monet-4

It wasn’t until Michel mentioned it that I realized that this is one of those portraits where the eyes follow you. I had hoped there would be a name for that particular phenomena but though there are several explanations about how it happens it appears there is no term in painting to cover it.

A left click on this photo of artist André Monet will take you to his website and more examples of his work.

From the Queen Mom’s House

As a sidebar I noticed a rather attractive decanter in front of the portrait and on closer examination I saw that it bore the engraving: Glamis Castle.


Now as any one who has read Shakespeare can tell you that is where a good deal of the bloody action takes place in the Scottish Play.  And as any royal watcher can also confirm it was the residence of the family of Elizabeth Bowles Lyon – better known as the Queen Mom.  It was indeed a gift from the Queen Mother and I’m sure there is a story behind it but that will have to wait for another time.

On this day in 1968: Former American First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy marries Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis.

A Loving Father

Though the Palazzo Chigi in Ariccia is filled with many wonders, I think the most wonderful is this simple painting by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. And the subject is not all that common – the normal devotional painting is Madonna with Child but here the infant Christ is held by his Earthly father San Giuseppe (Saint Joseph).

It was executed in 1663 for the chapel of the Palazzo and is one of Bernini’s rare paintings. And it is the only known work actually signed by the artist. All religious significance aside I find it an incredible vision of paternal love.

11 lulgio – San Benedetto da Norcia

Sunlight on the Side of A House

I was first fully aware of who Edward Hopper was back in 1981 when I fell in love with Pennies From Heaven, a musical film fantasy with Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters based on Dennis Potter’s successful BBC TV Series. The settings for several scenes were right out of Hopper paintings – and the one I recognized immediately was his most famous: Nighthawks. A bit of investigation – the library, yes Virginia we went to the library back in those days – revealed more about him and his work and I number him amongst the 20th century artists that I adore.

When the Hopper exhibition at the Museo di Roma was first advertised on billboards throughout town I made a note to myself that I really had to catch it. And finally I did last weekend – further note to self: try to catch these things other than on the day before they close.

This retrospective has toured several cities here in Italy with Roma being its last stop. I had been hoping that Nighthawk would be amongst the paintings but sadly its still hanging in its usual place at the Art Institute of Chicago. But they did have a marvelous life-sized mock up of the scene and allowed you to have your photo taken in it. Being the shy person I am, I declined as really if Hopper had wanted an extra person in the scene he would have painted them in.

If his most famous painting wasn’t there then certainly others quite recognizable as the work of the Nyack born artist were. Included were some of his early work from Paris, including Soir Bleu and a series of wonderful caricatures. Many of his graphic works from his earlier New York days revealed the subjects he would return to again and again but in shades of black and white.

One of the interesting features was the work ups for so many of the paintings that were included – it appears that Hopper or more specifically his wife and chief model Jo saved pretty much everything he did. When she died in 1968 – a year after Hopper – she left almost 3000 items to the Whitney Museum. Needless to say much of the exhibition was on loan from them.

At the beginning of the exhibition Hopper is quoted as, rather ingeniously, saying: All I ever wanted to do was paint sunlight on the side of a house., And that he did do – on houses in both urban and rural settings. But he also painted lamplight in streets and parks, the flickering lights in a movie cinema, the clotted light of industrial cities, the clear air of New England, the glare of neon on an interior and the first sun of morning through an open window on the walls of a room and the body of his beloved Jo.

Morning Sun was painted in 1952 and as usual Hopper did a series of drawings before brush touched paint or canvas.

Hopper worked with Conté crayons for most of his preliminary drawings. The top drawing was obviously his initial thoughts on the composition and you can trace the line of this thinking as the drawings become more and more detailed.

What I found fascinating was his detailed notation on colours and shadings to be used once he got to work. Noting the effects he wants to achieve, the degrees of light and shadow within the painting and the shading of colours. This was the first time I was aware of an artist taking that approach – I guess much of my view on how painters work is based on how they do it in Hollywood.

Obviously these notations were meant as guidelines and there would be deviations but it is interesting to see how often those first thoughts are present in the finished work.

As with most of Hopper’s work the lines are clean, at first glance the colours deceptively seem primary and the subject seems very ordinary. What makes its extraordinary is Hopper’s ability to “paint sunlight”.

The preliminary drawings are all from the Hopper collection at the Whitney Museum, the painting itself is in the care of the Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio.

18 giugno – Sant’Erasmo di Formia


Birds of the Air and Beasts of the Field

Most people know that St Francis of Assisi, along with Saint Anthony of Padua, is the Patron of Animals in the Western Church but I defy anyone to tell me – without Google or a similar search – who the Patron Saint of God’s Creatures Great and Small is in the Orthodox church. Here’s a hint:


Give up? It’s Saint Modestus of Jerusalem, one of the several patrons of animals in the Eastern Church.

I had seen this beautiful icon at Koukos when we were in Athens last November – when I bought the very unusual icon of the Child Christ, the Virgin and her mother Saint Anna. But at the time I just didn’t have the money to spend on it. However my very thoughtful spouse decided that as we seemed to be calling on several saints name while attempting to train the deadly duo that it would be good to have one of those saints represented in our house.

It was “written” by the same icon writer* from Thessaloniki as the previous one and bears his signature characteristics if not his actually name. It is painted on canvas and attached to the wood rather than on the wood itself. The figure is decidedly Eastern in appearance but scene that surrounds him could almost come out of an early Medieval manuscript. It is this combination of Western and Eastern influences that appeals to me most in this writer’s work.

So it now falls to Saint Modestus to become our helpmate in bringing Nick and Nora into line. If that fails we may just have to call upon a higher power. But then I’ve already done that in a very loud voice on several occasions.

19 luglio – San Pietro Crisci da Foligno

* Icons are said to be written not painted…  a very important element in the ethos of the Orthodox church.

Things – An Icon

In his highly readable Byzantium, The Early Centuries, John Julius Norwich introduces the first age of iconoclasm:

Ever since the dawn of history, when man first became a religious animal and almost simultaneously – give or take a millennium or two- made his first clumsy attempts at adorning the walls of his cave, he has had to face one fundamental question: is art the ally of religion, or its most insidious enemy?

Byzantium, The Early Centuries – John Julius Norwich
Penguin Books

The Iconoclasts came down heavily on the later view for two extended periods in the history of Byzantium. Iconoclasm literally means “the smashing of icons” and some of the great works of Eastern Christian art were destroyed when they had the upper hand. Fortunately, for the art world at least, the Iconodules won out and icon painting spread throughout various parts of the Christian world and they are still being created today.

Last week in Athens we saw icons on display in shops everywhere. Some were strictly for the tourist trade – fine iconographic art from Chinese workshops, some were silver and gold encrusted meant for church use or private devotion and others were being sold as fine art in high end shops.

One such shop was across from our hotel on the Plaka. Koukos displayed some wonderful jewelry and beautiful art work in its windows. There was one piece that caught our attention immediately. For five days we went past it, looked at it, discussed it and even photographed it. Finally Friday morning I went in and asked the price. A quick exchange of text messages with Laurent, who was in Patras and we became the owners of this beautiful icon:

Our Icon

I don’t pretend that I have any great knowledge of the styles, schools or symbols of icon painting but several things had struck me. The borders are decidedly unconventional, almost like the decorations on a medieval manuscript. But more important the grouping is very unusual: Jesus with the Virgin Mary and her mother Saint Anna. These three figures seldom appear together in any type of Christian art. And though they have that slightly distant spiritual look you associate with Eastern religious art I also sense a warmth in the women’s faces that drew me to it immediately. And I find the drape of St Anna’s arm around her daughter’s shoulder a particularly lovely detail.

The artist, as with most Icon painters his name is not provided and the piece is unsigned, is from Salonika in the north of Greece and he is known for his unusual subjects and decoration. His central figures always follow the icon traditions but what surrounds them is often taken from other sources. He also follows a very old tradition of painting on canvas and attaching it to the wood rather than painting on the wood direct.

After I made the purchase the two shopkeepers showed me another of his works which again had an unusual appeal – a very traditional figure of St Mamas, the patron of Animals in a lovely miniature farmyard right out of a medieval book of hours. It was a struggle but I decide the family fortunes just couldn’t afford it. But who knows it may still be there on our next trip back in the spring.

Addendum: I received a comment from djedushka who tells me that icons are “written” not painted. As I look at our Icon and think about it, that is a wonderful way of describing its creation. Many thanks.

03 dicembre – San Francesco Saverio