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!
Now that this painting, which was commissioned for a fundraiser effort, has made its way to its final destination via an exciting in-person auction, I am free to make the official reveal:
St. Joseph the Humble
As I mentioned, this painting was commissioned for a fundraiser, in this case for the group Young Catholic Professionals.
The folks at YCP and I were in talks about this painting long before we knew that this year would be declared by Pope Francis as the Year of St. Joseph. The conference was originally scheduled for last September, but of course was pushed out until this spring. In the end, the timing was auspicious, as the Conference took place over the weekend of May 1, feast of St. Joseph the Worker.
In the process of this painting, I was certainly meditating on St. Joseph the Worker. I tried out different poses with my model, considering painting the Saint with his hammer and square to emphasis his carpentry. St. Joseph the Worker is absolutely my patron in my studio and I am devoted to him especially as the model man who provides for his family with hands-on work. In the end, I chose to paint St. Joseph with his flowering staff. His head down, his brow somewhat furrowed, his mind pondering the tasks placed before him and his heart in prayer, he eventually emerged to me as a man most humble. Hence the title.
I had the pleasure of traveling to Dallas, TX for YCP's annual conference and presented this work at the VIP reception before the concluding gala.
"John is a very talented artist who clearly puts his heart and soul into his commissioned pieces. The painting exuded light, depth, and sophistication, which translated into an excellent live auction experience with substantial funds raised for our non-profit." - Jennifer Baugh, Founder & Executive Director of Young Catholic Professionals (YCP)
After the unveiling, I painted on my signature as the very final step to complete this work.
Here's a shot of the winner (left) and the gentleman who graciously agreed to let this painting go in exchange for a whole separate commission. So another St. Joseph painting will soon be underway!
The auction was very exciting, with two bidders eventually getting into a bit of a war over the piece! After considerable back-and-forth, time was running short. The auctioneer made the suggestion on the spot: would I be willing to paint a second painting for the runner-up? I agreed, and in the end, you might say, the painting sold not once, but twice to benefit YCP.
And then to make it even more complete, a priest was available to give the painting a blessing on the spot! So the artwork was able to go to its new home all ready as a blessed object to aid in prayer and devotion. It was perfect!
Many thanks to my model, an excellent study for St. Joseph -- my brother-in-law. We had a good - if quiet - time in the studio to make this come to life.
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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