You can imagine my excitement when I received the request from a patron in Texas for a new Madonna for his private residence. As you know, portraiture is a love of mine. And whose portrait would I rather attempt than that of my heavenly Lady, the Mother of God! For a Catholic artist, this is an honor and a dream. I have depicted the Virgin Mary before, but never had such an opportunity to focus on a Madonna painting and produce to the best of my ability in her honor.
The intention was to execute this painting this spring. Coordinating was a bit of a challenge (much like all endeavors these days), with no ability to make advanced plans and everything uncertain. Fortunately, I was able to work with a local model and the other artist friend joining me in the studio is very close by as well — so when the moment arose that all parties were available, we were able to act quickly! The model’s time was very limited and I was under deadline on my latest children’s book illustrations, but we managed to squeeze in a good number of hours in the studio in one week’s time.
My patron had indicated a desire for something along the lines of the Italian baroque images below. The goal was also to capture a Mary with a very youthful look.
A makeshift canopy-type structure from cardboard served so that the shadows would be intense behind her while also allowing the natural light from my window to fall directly on her face, causing a strong compositional contrast and highlight. With this in place, I was able simply and immediately to achieve one of the main elements of these reference paintings: a deep background and very light foreground.
On the Saturday before the modeling week, we all gathered in the studio to set up and Deirdre came to help drape the model so I could set the style for our Marian pose. With the above paintings as my inspiration, I was looking for a color palette and style that was both rich and simple, while also working with the very fair skin tone of the model.
We landed on the combination of white and red with the traditional blue mantle. The white wimple is a fine, beautiful linen-wool blend fabric — the same blend (as we learned from the friend who loaned the fabric to us for this purpose) that would have been reserved for priests’ temple rituals in the ancient Jewish tradition.
After the week’s worth of work with the live model, the halo was the final touch still lacking. After considering a fine, tilted gold ring for the halo, I ultimately landed upon this glow to gently emphasize the holiness of the Virgin. A few subtle changes to the face served to idealize and distance the image from the model’s actual look.
Altogether, the process was rapid-fire due to the constraints of working in the midst of cultural crisis! But all went very smoothly. It was an absolute honor to do this work.
From the beginning of the project, my patron and I had discussed back and forth about the right frame style for this image. That conversation concluded, the choice was a vintage gold frame which arrived here just days ago and with which I’ll be finalizing the painting this coming week before it ships to its final destination.
So, without further ado, I offer you my Morning Star Madonna, an initial contribution to the massive and venerable tradition of Marian oil paintings. My profound thanks to the collector who made this endeavor possible by his patronage! I hope it will be a significant enrichment of his home.
Please stay tuned as I will be offering a very limited number of giclée prints of this image in the coming weeks, exclusively to my newsletter subscribers. It will be my great pleasure to be able to offer high-quality reproductions to a few purchasers so that we can further spread the work enabled by this commission.
Guest post from Deirdre Folley, John's wife and studio manager.
During the current crisis, perhaps you've heard from sources in the Art community that Art is now "more important than ever." I've received this line in my inbox from museums and galleries, institutions with special offers aiming to counteract the threat of isolation, loneliness, and meaninglessness.
In a time when millions of people are suffering unemployment, families are grieving the loss of loved ones, and experts in science and medicine are working double-overtime looking for solutions, is Art more important than ever?
Somehow, for me, this message was falling flat.
My reaction surprised me, since art is my husband's business and I try to represent John's artwork to you and the rest of the world. Do I not believe in what we're doing here?
At the same time that I was hearing from institutions in the art world, I was also hearing encouragement from some of you: friends and patrons, people who actively support what John is doing. But what I've heard from you has been different in a key way. The message in this community has been, "please keep doing what you do, because beauty is more important than ever" (my emphasis).
That's when it struck me that the reason that the museum curators and gallery owners weren't really reaching me with their line was because of this very tension: today, throughout much of the Art World, Art does not align with Beauty.
Moreover, even when the art itself is good and beautiful, the Art World tends to separate it from normal life and confine it to elite institutions, available only to a select group of adults who visit museums and attend gallery openings. While museum tours and gallery openings can be excellent, they represent the luxurious side of life rather than the essentially necessary.
But yes, we do need beauty more than ever. Beauty is not a luxury. That is why John does what he does. His aim is not to manipulate an audience with creative hijinks or even to produce works to end up in the sterile environment of a museum: he wants to produce works of beauty for you -- for patrons, for the public, and for the Church.
Just as we need the essential work of the people who provide food for our tables and the true and honest work of those who lay bricks for our buildings, so too do we need the work of those who put in the effort to produce works of beauty. In this way, although the Art World so frequently tends to the pretentious or the detached, the work of the true artist really is essential.
After all, what would be the good of conquering every disease this world could brandish, if we did not have sources of beauty in our lives to lift our minds and hearts beyond? If we shelter ourselves from threats but don't seek to enrich the world with what is beautiful, we are not living life but merely surviving.
So thank you for your encouragement and for your support. John hopes to repay your hope in him with truly beautiful work to enrich the world for all of us.
If you have never had the occasion to read John's Artist Statement, I hope you will take a moment to do so now.
Really, both making a work of art and having a child are strikingly similar.
Both involve great uncertainty at the outset. There are more potential parents frozen in fear at the uncertainty and responsibility of bringing new life into the world than there have been probably at any other extended time in history. Sadly, many don't overcome this fear.
Artists or potential artists, when faced with the blank canvas and so much possibility, can also balk under similar pressure.
This struck me recently when I assigned a project to my college level students. The task was to illustrate a poem from a series. The hardest hurdle seemed to be merely to put pencil to paper just to make the first sketch. Most who had the courage to do so were able to make the second and third refinements without much trouble. But for those who didn't the excuses were myriad: I can't draw; I don't have time; I can't draw people, hands, faces, animals, whatever; what should I choose from the poem - there is so much; what do you think I should do? (can you just make the decisions for me?).
So many potential parents and potential artists trip on that starting line: commitment. To really start making something of a family and in art, you must say 'no' to a whole host of sparkling possibilities and say 'yes' to a host of potential problems and uncertainties. Maybe you'll have to work hard to figure out how to draw hands better because that is what your particular vision needs!
Once parents are pregnant, the uncertainty continues: What will my child be like? Boy or girl? Saint or Sinner? What trade? The possibilities are vast even though you have the most important parameters figured out (mom and dad will be the foundation and support and guide through their lives). Likewise the artist who has set his hand to his craft never quite knows what will come out at the end! He can have some idea based on what his vision and skills are, but like with children, all art makes demands that are unforeseen and ultimately has a type of autonomy of its own.
What could possibly overcome such uncertainties? Love. We need to be less afraid of making mistakes and more generous with bringing life. The artist is driven more by the love for the process and the product than he is stymied by the possibilities of error and failure. It is the same when having and raising kids. We need love, daring, and a little stupidity (luckily both of the latter are usually contained in the former!).
Last summer I received a message via Instagram from a woman who comes from a family which, I have since gathered, takes gift-giving very seriously. Mary had a concept in mind for a Christmas gift painting for her mother and wanted me to execute it. It was my honor to do so and the result is Ex Calibur.
The driving meaning of this painting is the long and loving marriage of Mary's parents. Deirdre and I had the pleasure of visiting with Mary when she took a mini road trip to my studio in order to hand-deliver these objects which are of great sentimental value to her and her family, especially her mother. During that visit, she shared with us about the pieces and their significance.
In the painting you see an unusual sculpture that consists of two parts: a cut Steuben glass orb (if you will) and a beautifully crafted sword. The glass represents the Stone of legend and the sword is Arthur's famous weapon, Ex Calibur. Mary explained to me that this sculpture is a treasured possession and meant a lot to her parents (her father has passed away). The couple had discovered it in a shop many, many years previous but it had been outside their budget, so they kept it in mind and saved up for it while raising a large and busy family. They finally purchased it as a celebration of their 50th wedding anniversary. To Mary, seeing it is a reminder of the virtue of patience -- not to be stressed when something takes time or has to be budgeted for, since her parents waited 50 years for this gift!
The rings are her father’s Notre Dame ring and a miniature that he had made for her mother - very important to them as a dedicated ND family! (You know I appreciated this, being class of '08, myself.)
The cards are postcards which Mary and I agreed should be included in the painting. They are souvenirs from the Shrine of St. Anne in Quebec and represent the devotion Mary’s mother has to St. Anne (the mother of the Virgin Mary). Mary noted that her mother enjoys the fact that the feast of that saint falls on July 26 and that she herself also has twenty-six grandchildren.
Working on this painting was an absolute delight, as Mary was an ideal patron. She was excited to share her story and to hand off the vision while also very kindly entrusting the composition and execution to me. We had a great time communicating with her throughout the process and then hearing about how the gift had gone over at Christmastime. She told us that reflecting on the painting has even been a reminder to some of the grandchildren to visit the grave of their beloved grandfather. On a technical level, it was an interesting challenge to communicate the metal and the glass in the medium of oil paint.
It is my hope that this work will prove for many years to be a worthy tribute to a long and devoted marriage and the loving family it yielded. This world needs steadfast marriages and I was very glad to celebrate one this way.
Visit my Commissions page and read Mary’s kind testimonial here.
Perhaps you’ve noted the two coins in the center of the painting, which were my addition (with Mary’s approval). I can tell you what their significance is, but first I’d love to know what your guess is as to their meaning -- tell me your guess in the comments below!
Hello there, I'm John H. Folley. Thanks for visiting the Beauty Advocacy Blog, where it's my job to help you become a more discerning art appreciator.
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