|Well, here it is, oil on
canvas, actual size, 30 5/16" by 20 7/8".
The original is on wood. The inspiration came in 1972 when I
was living in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. It was then that I had
seen a series on PBS of the Renaissance period. One part
of that series was dedicated to the life of one Leonardo
da Vinci; during which at one point, as the narrator
spoke, the camera slowly zoomed into Leonardo's studio.
In the distance could be seen an easel with a painting.
Closer and closer the camera moved as the narrator's
words held my attention. I knew what was coming as it was
so obvious. The camera didn't stop closing in until only
the enigmatic smile on her lips occupied the whole
screen. I was so full of awe that I swear my body
temperature dropped. I was in a trance.
Several days later, I related the experience to a close friend and co-worker who had also seen the program. I had the highest admiration for John, probably unbeknownst to him, and when I told him that if I had enough money, I'd buy the painting regardless of the price. Of course, he told me that which I already knew, that it wasn't for sale, to which my response was that I'd simply have to make a copy. Well, his response and the manner in which he said it was, 'Awwww, you could never do that.' The next day I was at an art supply store. Then it was off to the library getting every book I could find on the artist and the painting. Many of the books had enlarged pictures of different areas of the painting. But I needed something larger. So, I contacted an art museum in Connecticut and purchased an almost actual size print for about $20. All I had to do was scale it up. Sounds easy but it wasn't.
Then there were the colours. In every book I had the colours were different due to variations in printing. I needed an absolute colour reference. The museum in Connecticut informed me that the colours in the print were as close to true as one could get; so there, finally, was my frame of reference. Getting an image on the canvas quite an ordeal.
There are artists on both sides of the family. Commercial on my father's side and ecclesiastical on my mother's. I could paint sceneries and such but never a portrait. For weeks I did nothing but absorb anything and everything I could from those books. Then came the time to put something on canvas.
The sketching wasn't as easy as I thought it would have been as I tend to be a stickler for detail. Before I put paint on it, the sketch bore a stark resemblance to George Washington. I was really bummed out but my wife encouraged me on.
Starting from the rear of the picture, the vanishing point in perspective, on went the paint for the background. Being somewhat adept at sceneries, my confidence began to elevate. I was told by some who had observed the work in progress that the scenery was remarkably true to the original, even to the colours. Next came the face. Panic set in and support from my wife and her mother just wasn't enough. So I sought solitude my cognac and imported cigars. For hours I would submerse myself in books, paints and cognac, looking at the canvas several feet away and getting up only to add a few more brush strokes. After several days the initial first layer of the face had been placed on canvas. The paint of the background began to set and I realized that the facial colours would too before long. I needed time so I learned about drying inhibitors; an oil similar to linseed oil that took forever to dry.
Weeks passed since the background was done; the face began to take form. It would be several weeks before that part was complete. The hardest part was capturing the smile which took several days. By the time I got to the lower body and the hands, several weeks had passed. The whole thing took about 3 months, maybe 4; during which I consumed a Spanish Don Diego #8 or Jamaican Macanudo every day at a dollar each, which, in '72 was a lot for a cigar as compared to gasoline at 35 cents a gallon. The cognac was going down at about a bottle a week.
When all was done, it was placed on the wall in the living room of our apartment and was covered before anyone but my wife saw it the following weekend. John drove 30 miles from Newburgh, N.Y. for the unveiling. It was an exalting moment which I had never experienced before but was to experience on several more occasions. The next occurrence was when my mother saw it. She got all emotional and cried. Mommies sometimes do that. Another time was when my uncle, the ecclesiastical artist, passed through Poughkeepsie en route from Montreal to Rochester.
I was ever so concerned about what he would say. If anyone could critique it, he could. I also wondered how honest he would be about that critique thinking he would try to spare my feelings. I kept it covered before his arrival as I needed time to assure him that I wanted an honest opinion. He agreed, and I exposed the painting. He was silent for a few minutes and I was scared. A man of very few words, he simply said it was better than he expected. He then went on, at my insistence, about such things as lighting and anatomy. The hands bore his most critical words. I expected that as I realized that by the time I got to them I was weary of paint, cognac and cigars. But he advised me not to alter it. I took that advice.
By the end of 1974 my wife and I were moving to Arizona. The painting was crated in a heavy wood container for the journey, made by truck with a car in tow and an Afghan and a big black alley cat contained therin. Less that a year later we were divorced, quietly going our separate ways. The frameless painting hung in the living room where it appears in some of my photos. Frameless only for about 2 years until my mother visited me and decided to get it framed at a cost of $300. The frame is covered, not with paint, but with 24 karat gold leaf.
The gallery that framed it was also impressed with it and moreso after it was framed. They suggested I put it up for auction and gave me a starting price with confident estimates of a settlement which would have paid about 60% of the mortgage on the house which we bought just 2 years earlier. But I couldn't part with it even for twice the mortgage. I doubt if I could do another and even if I could, it wouldn't be the same, despite that it might be better. Perhaps a little of da Vinci's spirit was close by in '72.
Thank You for your time reading this.
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