I’ve been painting portraits since the sixties. It remains an enormous challenge filled with instruction. I have never painted a portrait that didn’t turn into a master’s course on anatomy or lighting, shading, hue, and color.
In 1972-3 (when I was incredibly young) an odd and wonderfully serendipitous series of events put the marvelous William F. Buckley, Jr. in front of me and my easel. I had been commissioned to paint the great man’s portrait (life size) and went at it with great fervor and loaded brush.
He is sitting at his National Review desk, his Olivetti typewriter at his side, a sheaf of papers being held for inspection, a pencil drawn up by his cheek, and the contemplative look he often wore. He was entirely grace and charm. He wanted the answers to 3 questions before he decided to undergo the process which was done largely from photographs but also three remarkable sittings. Those questions were: 1. Can I read during the sittings. 2. May I bring my dog. 3. What will it cost if I like it. I qualified on all three counts.
Chris Borgen was one of New York’s finest reporters and a good friend of mine. I had the great fortune to be writing news at CBS when he was there and learned an enormity from him. His words were a cross between Lord Byron and Mark Twain. The city loved him. I did several portraits of Chris, and later also of anchors Rolland Smith and Jim Jensen.
The constant tranquility of the depictions of Joan of Arcadia, St. Joan, Joan of Arc, wore heavily on me. She is always shown resigned, composed, and feverishly obedient. I wasn’t having any of it when I painted this portrait.
I read the transcripts of her trial and she was all fire and fury. The substance was, did she actually hear the voice of God or was she making it up. The record shows a ferociously bright anger from St Joan who frequently silences the church prosecution with “Not relevant to my case! Next question!” She made a failed escape out of the tower window where she was being held prisoner, breaking her leg in the fall and being recaptured. She didn’t sound to me as if she was resigned to anything. This is called St.Joan: Listening, Dying. I’m sure God was with her and speaking to her in those final minutes. And the betrayal from his earthly guaranteers burst her heart. That’s what I painted.
Mary Shelley was 18 when she wrote Frankenstein, and won the horror story contest devised by her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and friend Lord Byron. The beautiful threesome were roughing it in a rented lakeside castle between Italy and Switzerland that summer, bored, indulgent, oversexed and looking for something to occupy their extraordinary intellects. Byron and Shelley were as famous for their brilliant poetry as for their unconventional lives. It was a time when poets ruled like rock stars, pursued by all strata of society in a dozen countries. For young Mary, a trailblazing independent in her own right, it must have been like camping out with Mick Jagger and Lou Reed. Frankenstein was quickly published, but under her husband’s name. Their lives were scandalous enough. That an English woman of breeding wrote about monsters was over the top. Eventually, Mary got credit for authoring the legendary monster. The summer was soon tragic. Young Percy Shelley, who could neither swim nor steer, rented a sailboat on the far end of the lake to make the voyage back home. A storm rose up fast and furious. Percy Shelley drowned. Following 2 horrific days of searching the coast, Mary went back to the castle. Shelley’s body washed up, discovered by the madly distraught Lord Byron. He dragged his best friend’s corpse up on sand and rocks, and in the grand if not uncommon tradition of the times, set Shelley on a funeral pyre built on the spot. Then in a mad impulse, though also not uncommon to the times, Byron briefly pulled the body from the fire and cut out Shelley’s heart. You have only to read Byron’s words to glimpse the heightened sensitivity and extraordinary depths of his ideas. Great drama as well as a touch of cruelty were his companions. Lord Byron later placed Shelley’s heart in a beautiful box and had it delivered to the unsuspecting widow Mary who was cloistered, beyond grief, not imagining any life for herself without the man she loved with all the intensity in this fabulous young girl. She opened the box, understood its content, and never spoke to Byron again. Mary Shelley is worthy of study.
Steve McQueen, Racer, Actor Oil on Canvas, 18 X 24 inches “Speed is all there is. Everything else is just waiting.”