Saturday, August 10, 2019

James Abbott McNeill Whistler

The paintings of Whistler (1834-1903) have been a significant influence on my work - one that I don't mention as much as I should. The beauty of his compositions and his use of closely-related colors to create tonal harmonies have long been an inspiration, and these qualities are embodied in Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. The painting is one of my favorites, and I always go to see it when I visit the museum. 

Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl 
James Abbott Mac Neill Whistler
1862, oil on canvas, 84" x 42 1/2"National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

A painting of Joanna Hiffernan - Whistler's muse and mistress - it was submitted to the exhibition at the Paris Salon in 1863 and rejected. It was shown instead at the Salon des Refusés where it became a major attraction. Whistler regarded the painting as an expression of his belief that a work of art should fundamentally be appreciated for its appeal to the eye - for what I would call its abstract qualities - rather than being viewed and interpreted only as a narrative.

I share that point of view, as well as Whistler's interest in harmonies of very similar tones of one color. His use of different whites in this painting, punctuated by the note of dark red hair, is compelling and beautiful, and I've gone in that direction in a number of my paintings.

Some examples of my harmonies in white:

Night in a White Room
1969, oil on canvas, 12" x 18"
Destroyed in 1974. An experiment with an oil medium caused the surface to splotch and discolor, and being painted in oil over an old acrylic painting caused the surface to crack and peel as well. Lessons learned.

Interior at Night
2013, oil on linen, 52" x 50"
Collection, Fidelity Investments

Bread Shop
1996, oil on linen, 14" x 20"
Private collection, Massachusetts

And a harmony in red:

Lola Likes Red
2016, oil on linen, 8" x 5 3/4"

A more minimal Whistler is in the collection of the Worcester Art Museum - a portrait of a later mistress, Maud Franklin:

Arrangement in Black and Brown: The Fur Jacket

James Abbott Mac Neill Whistler
1877, oil on canvas, 76" x 36 1/2"
Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts


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Wednesday, May 22, 2019



2018-2019, oil on linen, 30" x 38"

My March 9th post was about how Bahareh and Farzaneh Safarani - artists and twin sisters - came to my studio and asked if I would do a portrait of them set within the world of my painting. As the work progressed, I posted about adding the large background figure - the muse - and then about the color choices being made.

Now completed, I find that the harmony of closely related tones of warm neutral colors contrasting with the large areas of dark grays and blacks makes for a gentle luminescence, despite being rather subdued. All is further energized by the notes of bright color - the two drawings, the brush, the pencil, and the lid on the jar of water or turpentine - objects that could be considered the iconography of artists.

The final result is not a strictly accurate portrait - people who know the sisters may say they look a bit different from my representation - but the painting is an accurate portrayal of my inner feelings about them as a psychological expression, or perhaps better said, as an impression.

In the sisters' studio
30 October 2017

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Sisters, in Black

All the dresses and the window are now finished in my painting of Bahareh and Farzaneh Safarani in their studio.

in progress
30" x 38". oil on linen

I envisioned both sisters in black dresses when the initial composition was being developed, but later, other possibilities were also considered: all in blue, or one sister in blue and the other in black.

Three or four different deep blues were tried first, but none seemed right, and I decided to go with all black. The color immediately felt correct. It related to the ever-present black dresses in their paintings. All black was also integral to my original vision of a somber, neutral color palette, energized by a few notes of bright color.

All that's left to do are a few more small objects, the tables, and the wall.

my initial color study on palette paper

Interrogation of the Self
Bahareh and Farzaneh Safarani
2017, oil on wood panels, 78" x 172" 
photographed in their studio

A recent example of this color palette is Nadine with Cigarette - where her red lips and the complimentary green blouse are the only bright notes.

Nadine with Cigarette
2018, oil on linen, 9 1/2" x 7"

Saturday, March 23, 2019


Work is progressing very well on the large painting of Bahareh and Farzaneh Safarani in their studio.  

The hands and faces are finished except for some minor glazing. I was about to begin painting the clothing next, but instead I felt a clear need to add a large face to the reflection in the window ... the face of a woman that "watched" over the composition. She was not in the original drawing, but when I drew her, she arrived quickly, fitting in as perfectly as if she'd been there from the beginning. I smiled with the thought that she was the sisters' muse. Little did I know ...

in progress
30" x 38", oil on linen

I wrote the sisters about the addition and Farzaneh replied: " ... there is like another person who oversees us and lives with us in our world. This person is like a mutual ego between me and my sister. In our paintings even though we do paint portraits of one of us - which is often me - but we try to portray that person who is someone between me and my sister. It grows with us and we both contribute to her being. She is the actual subject of our works. We try to to represent her through ourselves."

That thought provoking insight into their work is one more uncanny item to add to the ever-growing list of positive outcomes when letting the subconscious dictate the painting.

The dresses are next to paint now, though first have added the bright notes of a pencil and a brush on the table.


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Saturday, March 9, 2019

Bahareh and Farzaneh Safarani

Bahareh and Farzaneh Safarani are twin sisters, known primarily for their collaborative works of art: multimedia as well as performance. I first met them in September 2016 at the opening of their exhibition, Projecting Her, at the Adelson Galleries Boston.

The exhibition was one of the most outstanding I've seen in a number of years by any young and emerging contemporary artists. Approximately a dozen paintings were exhibited, some quite large. They had worked in tandem on each and were also the subject of each. Videos were projected onto the paintings: curtains in a light breeze, legs walking. The end result was very evocative and thought-provoking, but rather than trying to describe the visual experience, here's a short video produced by WBUR earlier this year:

Bahareh and Farzaneh Safarani
2016, oil on wood panel with video projection, 5 x 13 feet
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Since that exhibition, they have created performance pieces at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Institute of Contemporary Art, and the work pictured above, Asleep, has been acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts. Significant achievements.

Six months after that opening, I was pleasantly surprised to receive an email from them that concluded: "... we wanted to see if you are interested in doing a painting from both of our portraits as twins. Hope you want to."

They came to the studio and the idea intrigued me. The painting was not being commissioned; they simply wanted to be within the world that exists in my paintings. Normally, I would have declined, preferring the freedom of working without outside constraints or concerns, but swayed by the compliments and especially by the challenge, I agreed. Then I took almost a year before coming up with a composition that I liked, of  them in their studio.

2018. pencil on graph paper, 7 1/2" x 9 1/2"

Since much of their work seems to be about identity and the boundaries between individuals, I liked the ambiguity of this composition: not defining which sister is which, adding the reflection of one face in the window, and leaving unclear whether a mirror, poster, or painting is being held up.

A year later - about the average time I take between having an initial idea to getting to the easel - an oil painting is now in progress:

oil on linen, 30" x 38"

Tuesday, January 15, 2019


The title of this painting while in progress was Woman with Fishbowl: #2. Now that it's finished, the title has been simplified to Fishbowl.

2018-2019, oil on linen, 17" x 15"

In my last blog post, I was undecided about the color of the upper half of the wall - light red stripes or pale ivory ones - but as often happens, the final choice was neither. The yellow serves well as a transition from the white wainscoting to her skin tone and then to the orange fish and red blouse.

I also toyed with the idea of including a black cat, Mr. Epps, but he added an element to the composition and the narrative that took the painting in a different direction. And none of the preparatory drawings included a cat.

left: drawing #1  (initial sketch)
2018, pencil on paper, 7" x 4"

right: drawing #4
2018, pencil on paper with green oxide pastel on reverse, 17" x 15"

In the final drawing, the woman was facing outwards, but once I started painting, the narrative began to look as if she was showing or offering the fish to the viewer. As with the cat, that was not really in my vision of the composition. I decided to go with the profile - as she was in the initial drawing - preferring the dynamic of the woman and the fish looking in opposite directions, with neither engaging the viewer.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Woman with Fishbowl: #2, in progress

I've been working on a painting of two artists, twins, in their studio, which is coming along quite well, but have put it aside for a couple weeks to spend some time on a simpler composition of a woman holding a fishbowl - a narrative theme that has recurred in my paintings several times over the years.

Woman with Fishbowl: #2
in progress, oil on linen, 17" x 15"

The background is all that's left to do and my main decision now is what colors to paint the stripes on the upper half of the wall: in light reds or in pale ivory tones. The lower half will be white wainscoting. I'm also toying with the idea of adding a cat - Mr. Epps - in the lower left corner. He's not in the original drawings. Will see. 

I tried a number of colors for the blouse, beginning with blue. As a complementary color to the orange color of the fish, a blue should have created a lively energy, but all the ones I mixed seemed flat instead. Greens and purples were no better, and a dark grey, while seeming hopeful, also didn't work. When I finally tried red, it immediately felt right. The quiet harmony of the orange against the red suited the mood. 

Here are two earlier paintings on the theme:

Woman with Fishbowl
1997, oil on linen, 18" x 18"
Private collection, New York

1980, oil on masonite, 3.5" x 4.5"
Private collection, Connecticut

Mr. Epps made his first appearance in the above painting, being Claire's cat. Meanwhile, the fish has grown over the years.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Charlie's Go Round

Charlie's Go Round

2018, oil on linen, 16" x 12"

The initial idea for this painting came to me during a conversation about art with an old friend. We had just finished dinner at a Mexican restaurant when he asked me what criteria was used by critics and curators to determine an artist's importance. He continued to say that in his opinion the contemporary art he saw - even in highly respected venues -  varied greatly in quality, ranging from sublime to superficial. He didn't understand why it was that way. My insight was expected.

Though I've read more than my share of art criticism and theory, the question can certainly be baffling. In the course of art history, there have been many movements, many responses to the human experience, that have created an expanding complexity of thought about the nature of art. When I consider works of the Renaissance, there does appear to be more consistent discretion by the patrons toward the abilities and reputations of artists. However, the definition of art was much more narrow then, with rules limiting what an artist could do.

Other than offering those obvious thoughts, I really had no easy answer for my friend. He was looking as glum as a portrait of Emiliano Zapata nearby on the wall. Fortunately, the flan arrived. 

The painting within this painting came out of that discussion - I was doodling some sort of arcane explanation on a paper napkin - though its original concept in my mind was pink and black:

There are three drawings related to this painting, all similar except in size; here's the second one:

drawing #2

2018, pencil on graph paper with pastel tone on reverse, 12" x 10"

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Kathleen's Heart

Kathleen's Heart
2018, oil on linen, 11" x 8"

I've carried this composition in my head since 1975 ... an image of a lovely woman I once knew who had heart surgery, ever cheerful despite the experience. I have no idea what became of her.

The palette is purposely subdued, her hair and scar the brightest tones, complemented by her blue eyes and the green horizontal stripe on her blouse. The colors suit the narrative, but the palette is also a color study for a larger painting I'm about to begin of two sisters, artists, in their studio.

A drawing for this composition floated around the studio for years - it's now lost - and then four or five years ago I drew it again on an 8" x 6" canvas where it lingered until early this month when I made a larger drawing that was 11" x 8".

My intention was simply to realize an image and composition that was based on a memory. After the painting was finished, standing back and looking at it, I suddenly thought about the many Renaissance paintings of saints, imagined portraits, who are identified by the inclusion of an iconographic symbol: Saint Catherine with a spiked wheel, Saint Ambrose with a beehive, Saint Lucy with her eyes on a plate or on a stalk. The strong influence of the early Italian painters upon my work amuses me at times like this ... how it subconsciously affects me. 

Saint Lucy
Francesco del Cossa (ca. 1430 - ca. 14770
ca. 1473/1474,  30" x 22" tempera on panel
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Here are the two drawings for Kathleen's Heart:

drawing #2
2018, pencil on graph paper with pastel tone on reverse, 11" x 8"

drawing #1
pencil and ink on primed canvas, 7 1/2" x 6"

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Ginevra de' Benci

In The Truth about Lola, the book that accompanied my 2008-09 retrospective, Bartholomew Bland, curator of the exhibition, wrote the following about this painting:

Eliza with Saigon Martini
2000, oil on linen, 6 1/4" x 5"
Private collection, New York

Eliza with Saigon Martini is a classic pose of the world–weary woman [ ... ]. With her décolletage and slightly sullen demeanor, Eliza perhaps most closely resembles the figure in Leonardo da Vinci's Ginevra de Benci, with a cocktail and a cigarette.

I was extremely pleased by the reference because the Leonardo is one of my favorite paintings in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and I always make an effort to see it whenever I'm there.

Ginevra de' Benci
Leonardo da Vinci
1474/1478, oil on panel , 15" x 15"
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

The painting was acquired by the National Gallery in  February 1967 for around 5 million dollars (or ca. 38 million in today's dollars). I believe that was a record price at the time for the purchase of any painting, though it seems quite a bargain by today's standards. Sold to the museum by the House of Liechtenstein, the painting traveled across the Atlantic in a specially-modified suitcase nestled in its own first-class seat on a Swissair flight.

I remember standing in a considerable crowd to see it for the first time. When I finally had a few moments to look closely I was amazed by the subtlety of the tones, the exquisiteness of the details, the beauty of the ringlets of hair and the pattern of the juniper behind her. 

The psychological aspect of the Leonardo's painting was also intriguing. Ginevra  was 18 or 20 at the time the portrait was made and a few years before had married Luigi Niccolini, a respected Florentine from a moderately wealthy family. Her melancholy in the portrait has been attributed to different reasons, depending on the source. One, that her health was poor. Another - more romantic - was that she was pining for her lover, Bernardo Bembo, the Venetian ambassador to Florence who had been recalled home.

Years later in graduate school, I wrote a paper about the painting for a required art history course. I compared it to a painting by Lorenzo di Credi (1456/59-1536) in the Metropolitan Museum in New York - Portrait of a Young Woman - who is similarly backed by juniper and a receding landscape. The woman's grief - a recent widow - is represented by the iconography of the ring and the black dress. The point of my paper was that Leonardo's portrait presented the sitter's emotional state without the use of symbolic clues. The paper is long lost, but it was rather grandly titled Ginevra de' Benci: The First Psychological Portrait. My professor liked it, though I'm far from expert enough to know if my conclusion was actually true.

Portrait of a Young Woman
Lorenzo di Credi
1490/1500 oil on panel , 23" x 16"
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

I painted Eliza again nine years later, a little older and with a more sophisticated drink:

Woman Smoking: Eliza
2009, oil on line,  7 1/2" x 6"
Private collection, Maine

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Poetry by Michael H. Hanson

Michael H. Hanson, a writer and poet who has published four collections of poetry and over ninety short stories, also creates poems inspired by paintings that he's seen on Facebook. Two of my paintings - Jessie's Diner and Cell Phones - were the genesis of poems this summer. Reprinted below with permission.


Jessie's Diner
35" x 65", oil on linen, 2017
Courtesy of Adelson Galleries

This Treasure Chest

Another day at the diner,
the weather couldn’t be finer,
sizzling bacon perfumes the air,
each waitress a fun diviner
dispensing advice with a flair,
serving both kid and old-timer.

So pure the open window breeze
allows sweet grill smoke to allay
omelets piled high with cheddar cheese,
bottomless mugs in this café
putting most everyone at ease
as groggy thoughts just drift away.

Breakfast hash for the hungry man
and melon slices for the girls
all squeezed into a tight floor plan,
humanity’s palatine pearls
sharing these stools with kind élan
as broken egg yolk slowly swirls.

The crunch of toast, fresh home fries roast
in this room blest, this treasure chest
and common bistro on the coast
perfect, precious, and grandiose.

22 July 2018
Michael H. Hanson ©2018


Cell Phones

15" x 15", oil on linen, 2012

Private collection, Massachusetts

Allegorical Oracle

We’re all plugged in, synced to the source,
bound by some discourteous force,
distracted from another course
of coffee, tea, and sane discourse.

An unconnected appendage
raking the highest percentage
of those who cannot save a dime
and fear missing the assemblage.

An unseen cybernetic ghost,
a steel leech with us as host,
devouring both our voice and touch,
a whipping post where we can boast.

We’re all together yet alone,
cold and phantasmagorical,
trusting the seer that is our phone,
allegorical oracle.

13 July 2018
Michael H. Hanson ©2018

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Sea Isle City

This painting, made in my senior year at R.I.S.D., was one of eight shown in my first gallery exhibition a few months later in Boston:

Sea Isle City
7" x 9", oil on wood panel, 1969
Private collection, Massachusetts

The narrative is more autobiographical than usual, based on a childhood memory - a visit to Sea Isle City, New Jersey in the early 1950s, me sitting on a stoop wearing a straw cowboy hat, attended by a young baby-sitter whose bathing suit was much more modest in real life. A while back I looked at street views of the town on Google Maps and these cottages on stilts are long gone, but I remember them clearly. There's a photo in the family album too:

July 1952
Sea Isle City, New Jersey


"There is more power in telling little than in telling all."
- Mark Rothko

“The mind loves the unknown. It loves images whose meanings are unknown, since the meaning of the mind itself is unknown.”
- Magritte

"Now, the idea is to get everything right -- it's not just color or form or space or line -- it's everything all at once."
- Richard Diebenkorn