Portrait Painting in the Boston Tradition: An Interview with Richard F. Lack (1928-2009)

By Stephen Gjertson

Portrait of a Minister, 1956. Oil on canvas, 36 x 27. Private collection.

Portrait painting is a difficult and sometimes exasperating art. To survive, the portrait painter must be talented, flexible, thick-skinned and tenacious: talented enough to meet the artistic and creative demands of fine portraiture, flexible enough to balance artistic ideals with the realities of the profession in the modern world, thick-skinned enough to take the unreasonable demands and criticism that sometimes come from hard-to-please clients and tenacious enough to stick with it in spite of the stress involved.


In our present iconoclastic art world, where anything that has been done before is apt to be labeled irrelevant, the skilled portrait painter is still in demand. Abstract Expressionist, Cubist or childishly executed portraits do not appeal to most people. Consequently, throughout his long career, Richard Lack was a highly sought-after portrait artist. He began his career by painting six portraits for the Joseph P. Kennedy family. Since then he painted many prominent Minnesotans in the fields of law, medicine, business, education and religion. Lack's portraits of Minnesota governors Wendell Anderson and Albert Quie hang in the Minnesota State Capitol.

During his later career Lack limited his portraiture to family members, and devoted most of his time and energy to painting figurative works based on ideas formulated by the Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung, the founder of analytical psychology. In 1999 I spent an afternoon in Lack's studio and questioned him about his portraiture and the art of portrait painting.

Continue reading Portrait Painting in the Boston Tradition: An Interview with Richard F. Lack (1928-2009)

Hippolyte Flandrin: A Nineteenth Century Master, Part I

By Stephen Gjertson

Self-Portrait, 1840. Oil on canvas, 18 1/8 x 15. Private collection, Paris.

In 1857, seven years before the artist’s death, the eminent French art critic, Edmund About, wrote of Hippolyte Flandrin, “If posterity is just it will call him ‘Flandrin without fault.’ . . .” Unfortunately, posterity has not been just and Flandrin, who was one of the truly great artists of the 19th century, has sunk into obscurity. “Flandrin without fault” has become, except for a few specialists in 19th century French art, Flandrin the forgotten.

In his own time Flandrin’s peers referred to him as the French Fra Angelico. His work exerted a marked influence on French religious decoration during the second half of his century, particularly through his pupil Jules-Elie Delaunay and the work of Adolphe-William Bouguereau. Then, with the advent of Impressionism and the rise of the Modernism he, like most of his colleagues, was relegated to academic limbo. Until recently, if Flandrin was remembered at all, it was in the minor position as a pupil of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, in whose shadow he seemed forever condemned to languish, referred to as an undistinguished disciple of a genuine master.

Continue reading Hippolyte Flandrin: A Nineteenth Century Master, Part I

Hippolyte Flandrin: A Nineteenth Century Master, Part II

By Stephen Gjertson

The Portrait Painter

Portrait of a Young Lady.

Flandrin was a prolific portrait painter. In an age that boasted many fine portrait painters he became one of the most esteemed and sought-after. This fact, however, eventually proved to be more of an irritation to him than a blessing. His portrait career began modestly with relatives of fellow Prix de Rome winners and, as his reputation grew, ended with some of the most wealthy and influential people of the Second Empire. Most of his portraits were executed during those times when either his poor health or the dismal weather prevented him from working on the decorative projects with which, as an artist, he was primarily interested. On the practical side, portrait painting provided needed income, a way to “keep the pot boiling,” as he admitted. The large decorative commissions, although more artistically challenging and rewarding were, for the most part, not very lucrative, and painting portraits was necessary to stabilize his finances and enable him to continue his decorative work.

Continue reading Hippolyte Flandrin: A Nineteenth Century Master, Part II

Hippolyte Flandrin: A Nineteenth Century Master, Part III

By Stephen Gjertson

The Church of Saint Martin d’Ainay in Lyons

The Central Apse, 1855. Church of Saint Martin d’Ainay, Lyons.

Christ, the Virgin, Saint Blandina, Saint Clotilde, Saint Michael, Saint Pothinus, Saint Martin. Lithograph by Jean-Baptiste Poncet after Flandrin's decoration in the Church of Saint Martin d'Ainay, Lyons.

In 1854 Flandrin completed his work in Saint Vincent-de-Paul. The following year he was engaged in a similar undertaking for the Church of Saint Martin d’Ainay in his hometown of Lyons. In July of 1855, aided by Louis Lamothe and Jean-Baptiste Poncet, Flandrin began work in the church. He found the Curé ready to trust him thoroughly, and the first measure taken was to get an order from that gentleman to have all his scaffolding taken down and put up anew, as it had been prepared so as to make painting impossible! There were other drawbacks when he began to paint; the walls were badly prepared, and so wet that the first outlines had to be drawn three times; then a platform on the scaffolding gave way, and Flandrin had a fall, not from any important height, but enough to sprain both his feet and cause him to lose several days. The church was dark, the lights inconvenient, and July though it was, several days were so gloomy, that he said a candle would have been acceptable! and the curves of the rounded parts of the building, which necessarily altered the outlines of his figures, were troublesome. Another trouble to which Flandrin was sensitive, was that every one in the church could see what was going on, and, as he says, criticism set to work as soon as there were four strokes drawn! Flandrin declared to his brother that if he had known all the difficulties beforehand which were to beset him, he would never have undertaken the work.

Continue reading Hippolyte Flandrin: A Nineteenth Century Master, Part III

Hippolyte Flandrin (1809-1864): A Nineteenth Century Master, Part IV

By Stephen Gjertson

The Return to Rome

Joseph Sold into Slavery by His Brothers, Church of Saint Germain-des-Prés, Paris.

Study for Joseph Sold into Slavery by His Brothers, 1858. Pencil, 12 x 9 3/8. Musée du Petit Palais, Paris.

Flandrin had completed the nave of Saint Germain-des-Prés and was preparing to paint the transept when, in the fall of 1863, he decided to return to Rome. He had desired to make this trip since he had left the Villa Medici twenty-five years earlier. Illness pressed more and more heavily on him and he felt increasingly less able to face the endless worries and anxieties which his position, both public and private, involved. In Italy he hoped to restore his failing strength and get some mental and emotional rest. He determined “to do nothing but do homage to my beloved Rome.” He disliked to leave his work at Saint Germain-des-Prés unfinished, but looked forward to a time when he could return to work with restored health and renewed energy. He intended to request an audience with the Pope to obtain permission to dedicate a set of engravings of his decorations in Saint Germain-des-Prés to him by means of an inscription and the papal coat of arms. He also hoped to paint the Pope’s portrait.

Continue reading Hippolyte Flandrin (1809-1864): A Nineteenth Century Master, Part IV

Jean-Paul Laurens

A Late 19th Century Master

Self-Portrait, 1876. Oil on canvas, 17 3/4 x 14 5/8. Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Born in Fourquevaux, France (near Toulouse) on March 28, 1838, Jean-Paul Laurens came from a very modest background and started his career as a simple color grinder for an itinerant Piedmontese master. In 1854 he went on to receive training under Jean Blaise Willemsens at the École des Beaux-Arts in Toulouse and in 1860 obtained a municipal grant enabling him to move to Paris, where he studied in the studios of Léon Cogniet and Alexandre Bida. While there he met Madeleine Willemsens, the daughter of his first teacher in Toulouse. Laurens married Madeleine in 1869 and they had two sons. From poor and humble beginnings Laurens earned a reputation as one of the leading painters working in “the Grand Tradition” during the latter half of the 19th century in France.

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Pictorial Design

Frederic, Lord Leighton, The Daphnephoria, 1875-76. Oil on canvas, 7 feet 5 inches x 17 feet. National Museums and Art Galleries on Merseyside. Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight.

An Outline of Basic Principles

By Stephen Gjertson and Annette LeSueur

Dedicated to Richard F. Lack (1929-2009)
Artist, Teacher, Writer, Mentor, Friend

Titian, The Assumption of the Virgin, 1516-18. Oil on panel, 22 feet 7 1/2 inches x 11 feet 10 inches. Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice.


Annette LeSueur and I developed this material over a period of several years. While teaching at Atelier Lack, we often discussed the principles of pictorial design. We perceived design as the primary weakness of work done by students in modern ateliers and academies. When students began their careers, we noticed that they often continued to merely produce student studies on a larger scale, sometimes haphazardly arranging randomly chosen objects. We recognized that when a student attains reasonable skill in the language of painting (rendering the drawing, values, and color seen in nature), it is then necessary to use this ability to create works of art. Art is created primarily through design and drawing (fine drawing being, to a great extent, informed by the principles of design). This requires that the subject chosen by the artist be composed and designed with purpose, care and expertise. Without a sophisticated design, the most subtle nuances of rendering are of little or no effect, merely the work of a diligent student. It is sophisticated design that elevates this rendering into the realm of enduring and expressive art.

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The Paris Opéra: Charles Garnier’s Opulent Architectural Masterpiece

By Stephen Gjertson
Footnotes are inserted into the text within brackets.

Many are the architectural jewels of Paris. Notable among them are Notre Dame, Versailles and the Louvre. In a city of jewels however, there is none more dazzling than the Opéra Garnier, now more beautiful than ever after its meticulous restoration. Appraisals of the Paris Opéra have ranged from modernism’s charge that it is nothing more than a pastiche of past styles to Garnier’s own view that was a modern synthesis and development of past styles allied with present technology. Garnier designed the Opéra with knowledge, imagination and skill to perfectly fulfill both its aesthetic and functional requirements. It is an authentic expression of its time, a magnificent and resplendent union of architecture, ornament, sculpture and painting. Continue reading The Paris Opéra: Charles Garnier’s Opulent Architectural Masterpiece

Frontiers of Enchantment: The Outdoor Studies of William R. Leigh

Leigh sketching in the Southwest. Leigh Collection, Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa.

By Stephen Gjertson

Buffalo Mother, n.d. Oil on canvas, 36 x 48. Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa.

For some of those interested in art of the American West, the name of William R. Leigh conjures up dramatic images of bucking broncos, buffalo stampedes, Indian fights and cowboys riding hell-bent-for-leather. Others see gentle images of everyday Navaho and Hopi Indian life in the Southwest: mothers and children, goat herders, weavers or courting lovers. Still others think of intense confrontations between man and beast or beast and beast: hunters rescuing a friend from a ruthless grizzly held at bay by snarling dogs, elephants stampeding after terrified natives, a horse startled by a rattle snake or a buffalo mother defending her calf against vicious wolves. Whatever images his name arouses in the mind, be they stirring or serene, it has been said that no artist has painted the Old West more faithfully and magnificently than William Robinson Leigh. Continue reading Frontiers of Enchantment: The Outdoor Studies of William R. Leigh

Classical Realism: A Living Artistic Tradition

By Stephen Gjertson

The Origin of the Phrase

Stephen Gjertson, The Folly of Samson, 2005. Oil on canvas, 46 x 66. Maryhill Museum of Art, Goldendale, WA.

The expression “Classical Realism," when applied to a specific group of artists, originated with Minneapolis artist Richard Lack (1928-2009). Lack studied with Boston artist R. H. Ives Gammell (1893-1981) during the early 1950s. In 1969 he established Atelier Lack, a studio-school of fine art patterned after the ateliers of 19th-century Paris and the teaching of the Boston impressionists. In 1971 it was incorporated as a non-profit studio-school. By 1980 Lack had trained a significant group of young painters. In 1982 they organized a traveling exhibition of their work and that of other artists within the artistic tradition represented by Gammell, Lack, and their students. Lack was asked by Vern Swanson, director of the Springville Museum in Springville, Utah, (the exhibition's originating venue), to come up with a term that would differentiate the realism of the heirs of the Boston tradition from that of other representational artists. Although he was reluctant to label this work, Lack chose the expression “Classical Realism.” He had used the term in a review of an exhibition of his work in 1974, but it was first used to characterize the work of a specific group of painters in the title of the exhibition: Classical Realism: The Other Twentieth Century.


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