Deja-vu at the M.F.A….


Guido Reni’s “Saint James the Greater”, c. 1635-39.

My sketch, c. 2001.

As I wandered in the galleries of the great Houston Museum of Fine Art last week, I came across two 17th Century paintings that I well remembered from visits to the museum more than a decade ago. Guido Reni’s “Saint James the Greater” and Simon Vouet’s “Saint Sebastian” are both masterpieces of painting produced in 17th century Italy. Vouet, however, was French, and it can be seen in his work: despite the obvious influence of Caravaggio, the Saint Sebastien is “typically French in it’s sensitive modeling, delicate coloring and elegance of gesture.” Reni’s picture, on the other hand, strikes everyone – at first glance – as an image of Christ, but it is in fact Saint James, one of who’s attributes is the pilgrim’s staff. Both are sumptuous, arresting pictures, expressed in strong raking light… and they will stop you in your tracks.

Detail of Reni’s “Saint James”…

My copy…

…They must have stopped me in my tracks over a decade ago. At the time, I was performing at the Houston Grand Opera in a co-production with Toronto’s Opera Atelier – the company run by my dear friends Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg – and I had obviously brought a sketch pad along with me. I remember standing in front of the Reni picture scribbling away for an hour or so, first trying to capture the whole thing and then, later, making a detail sketch of the magnificent hands. In those days, I did quite a few copies in Museums, but only small drawings and never anything as elaborate as the life-size copies in oil that one occasionally sees a copyist making in front of a painting. I am always intrigued by those artists – and so, apparently, is everyone else: they always seem to be surrounded by people, curious to see a painter at work. In any case, I can remember standing for hours in front of a full-length Sargent in the Cleveland Museum of Art, trying my best to make a faithful reproduction in pencil. …The thing that you must know about the photos shown here is that the actual paintings are life-size and my drawings are the size of my hand. …But you get the idea. Now, granted, these are “quick” sketches, but this is one of the ways that I taught myself how to draw: by spending time in museums in front of paintings. And the process of looking – really meditating on the artist’s work – is rewarding in itself. In the nearly 400 years since these works were created by their masters, I wonder how many other countless artists – students and real ones alike – have marvelled at their beauty and pondered their mysteries?

There was something very satisfying about visiting them again…

Simon Vouet “Saint Sebastien”, c. 1625.

And again, a sketch by me. Drawn in 2001.