I first heard from the patron behind Our Lady of the Cottonwoods over a year ago. She and her husband had just been looking out their window at their Texas property, a Cottonwood-shaded place which they open up to friends and acquaintances for prayer and Catholic formation, and wishing that they had a beautiful "madonelle" -- such as they had seen throughout the streets of Rome -- present there to inspire.
I'm so grateful that they turned to me to help them make this desire come to fruition.
The request was for an image that could be placed indoors in a featured position as well as a copy that could be weather-worthy, to go in an outdoor niche as a public witness, a madonelle. Because of a family devotion to Our Lady of Czeschtohowa, I was to look to that famous icon for inspiration, while of course keeping my own style of Boston School Painting. My patrons asked me to imagine Our Lady with dark hair and blue eyes.
Discussion back and forth led us to the inclusion of certain details. To adopt Our Lady firmly into the land of the Cottonwoods, we determined that she should hold a blossoming branch of that tree in her hand. This seemed all the more fitting as the branch of the Cottonwood hides a distinct star pattern in its pith; the discreet but beautiful star of this plant calls to mind Mary, the modest Stella Maris.
A small team worked behind the scenes to bring the proper elements to my studio for this project: a poised young ballerina served as model across several weeks, her mother looking on; my daughter squirmed through a session in my wife's arms, her fair hair providing the luminous quality for the Christ Child; and a skilled friend was seamstress to provide Mary's regal robe. I did a bit of horticultural hunting and learned that Cottonwoods do indeed grow here in New England.
The painting is now complete and the project is now in its final stages. I will have the image professionally reproduced as a giclee to be mounted on wood and weatherproofed for its outdoor shrine; this will be the madonelle. The original oil painting will be framed and hung indoors in the conference room-retreat space where my patrons host events.
My goal was to depict the Virgin Mary as a woman who is very young yet steady and calm. Her demeanor is modest although her dress - like the impressive, powdery blossoms of the Cottonwood - is stately. On her hand is a ring featuring the Rose of Pallerols, a symbol with significance for devotees of St. Josemaria, founder of Opus Dei. The Bible in the hand of the Christ Child is also a reference to Opus Dei, as it is adorned by the symbol of that apostolate. As you regard the hands of the figures, you will notice that Christ's hand is gesturing towards Our Lady, while Mary's strong but delicate hand is gently gesturing right back to Him. The bright eyes of each call us in and yet both figures point us towards each other. The most luminous point of the painting is where the halos of the two overlap with one another.
It is my sincere hope that this image will be an aid to prayer and a source of inspiration for all the good folks in Texas who see it -- whether they're visiting and enjoying the original painting indoors, or just passing by and seeing it ensconced in its roadside shrine.
Sometimes, an artist produces commissioned works, working with a patron's vision.
Sometimes, an artist produces independently, working out his own vision.
And sometimes, it seems, something happens that's a beautiful "in between."
This new work is one of those pieces.
Our Lady of Victory, 25"x9"
Ink and Watercolor on paper
Let me explain: a version of Our Lady of Victory wrought in a style inspired by the work of Alphonse Mucha. On the one hand, this was a bit of a segue from my main studio work which, as you know, is oil painting in the Boston School tradition. On the other hand, it's a strain of my work that has been growing recently, from my recent Children's books A Child's Christmas ABC Book and A Child's Christmas Counting Book, which were also inspired by Mucha, and just a general pull in the direction of the Beaux Arts master. If you've been watching my Instagram updates and following along with my newsletter, you've noticed this study of mine.
A Parisian encounter
Eleven years ago this month, I rented a tiny apartment in Paris for my honeymoon with Deirdre. It was barely large enough to fit me standing up straight; we affectionately called the spot our 'Hobbit Hole in the Sky.' When we arrived there in the 2nd arrondissement, we found that we were perched just over the little church of Notre-Dame-des-Victoires (Our Lady of Victory). Over the next few weeks of strolling the city streets, visiting museums, painting and drawing together and munching baguettes, arriving back at Notre-Dame-des-Victoires became familiar, and the church was our home base in a foreign place.
Like all the churches in Paris, Notre-Dame-des-Victoires is architecturally stunning, imbued with a historic sense of holiness, and packed with painted masterpieces. Perhaps most strikingly, there is, in a side chapel, a large statue of Our Lady of Victory which is surrounded by artistically arranged piles of crutches that were left there by crippled pilgrims -- pilgrims who prayed for Our Lady's intercession and walked away healed, leaving their walking aids behind. It was before this same statue that St. Thérèse, whose sainted parents were devoted to Our Lady of Victory, once famously prayed for discernment about her vocation. We attended daily Mass there several times and became on friendly terms with the priest who was pastor there.
At the end of our visit, this kind priest presented us with a small replica of the famous statue of the Victorious Virgin as a gift to take home with us. We were deeply touched by the gesture. We felt a special connection to this little corner of the City of Lights and a new patroness for our future family: Our Lady of Victory. The statue has always held a place of honor in our home.
A new take on the Madonna
Two years ago, I was commissioned by a patron in the Midwest to produce an oil painting of Our Lady of the Rosary (the same iconic image as Our Lady of Victory, under a slightly different title and understanding). It was an occasion to bring my little statue into the studio for study and inspiration.
That painting was settled in Indiana some time ago, but the image of Our Lady of Victory/Our Lady of the Rosary has been on my mind and heart... An ink and watercolor, "Art Deco" version needed to be born onto paper. This seemed perhaps to be a bit of a 'pet project,' a pure labor of love... something for me to go ahead and try.
But it seems that the goodness of this idea is not just inside my head. As I was sharing the work in progress through Instagram, another patron reached out to inquire about it and ended up purchasing the painting when it was about halfway done. As you can imagine, this was truly a thrill for me! To have my 'concept' adopted at that stage was very affirming and exciting.
Since then, not only have I received many more inquiries and positive feedback from many of you about this painting, but I have also had inquiries about further commissions along these lines. So, clearly, my experimental marriage of sacred art with Mucha-style technique has much territory yet to be explored -- and I can't wait to go there. If this is something that you're interested in being a part of, please be in touch to discuss a commission; I would love to have a conversation with you!
About the piece itself
You will notice the symbolism of celestial bodies in the image. Mary is Queen of Heaven and has often been likened to the Moon -- she is not the source of life herself but the perfect mirror of grace, just as the moon reflects the Sun. Here she is imagined as a Lady strong but serene, powerful through her Son but humble in herself. Her mouth is resolute but quiet; the infant Jesus is more poised to speak to us and He offers us the Rosary, that powerful prayer. All the colors of dusk and dawn are around the two figures, but they stand forth in pure light, triumphant. In the corners are stylized lilies which represent Mary's purity. And the various stone touches hearken back to the architecture of Paris. I wanted the crowns especially to stand out with extreme dimensionality and splendor.
(Bonus detail: You may notice a similarity between the face of Jesus and the face of the angel who has just carved Our Lady's title into everlasting stone... both are modeled after my little daughter Symphorosa.)
I have heard from many of you that Our Lady of Victory is a title that seems very relevant at this historical and cultural moment. Perhaps you are sensing, like me, the spiritual battle taking place around us; perhaps you're occasionally feeling beleaguered and looking to Our Lady as the fair champion we need. We know the gates of Hell will not prevail against Christ's Church. Even when we feel besieged, Mary is a heroine of this story and shares her power through the Holy Rosary.
While my original Our Lady of Victory is awaiting framing in its new home in Texas, I am making prints available for all of you because of the way this image seems to have resonated with so many.
I have worked closely with an excellent giclée print maker here in Massachusetts and am very excited to have him reproducing my work on beautiful, archival, creamy paper with slight texture that is reminiscent of the original watercolor paper. I vetted a few test options and am confident that the quality and color of these prints will be a beautiful and excellent representation of the original work!
I'm trying out a print order form for your ease and my organization.
Please click through to place your order!
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.
Hello there, I'm John H. Folley, an oil painter in the Boston School tradition. 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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