The Muses

Recent Work and Chapter from My Upcoming Book, Figure the Future

Newberry, The Muses, 2022, oil on linen, 64x48"
Newberry, The Muses, 2022, oil on linen, 64×48″

The one place where I feel calm sublimity is in the Atrium of the Classical Greek sculptures in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan. Tenderness and care are the specific feelings. The closest analogy I can think of is being taken care of by an extraordinarily confident and empathetic nurse who administers a medicine that gently replaces painful agony with wave upon wave of soothing bliss.  [After writing this, I realize that this bliss could be what drives an addict.] It is remarkable that this Classical Art can infuse this epic sense of peacefulness in me. 

One example is the Grave Stele of a Little Girl with Two Doves, the sculpture of a young girl gently holding two doves is carved with the elegance of simplicity—just enough line, form, and proportion to convey her thoughtful care of living things. Originally created for her gravestone, this marble relief makes one feel empathy for the children of humanity.

Marble Grave Stele of a Little Girl, 450–440 B.C., Parian Marble
Marble Grave Stele of a Little Girl, 450–440 B.C., Parian Marble

I wanted to create this  feeling of empathy on an adult and mythical level with The Muses. I have been blessed to work with Georgie Leahy and Katie Borntrager on themes of love, birth, mythology, and the future, but this was the first time I’ve worked with them together. Indeed, it was the first time they had met each other. Working with two people is extraordinarily difficult. For instance, it can be confusing which model I am asking to move their head or hand. But our session for the reference material worked effortlessly. Every request was beautifully realized, from the models expressing care, to shifting their body weight to give a sense of floating. The three of us were 100% in sync; it was one of the most magical sessions I have been part of. 

The Muses is a life-size painting of two partially-draped women intimately sitting in repose with a brightly blue and gold nebula as the setting. Like the girl holding the doves, the dark-haired woman is gently holding the head of the other woman. The lower halves of their bodies are covered with transparent white cloth. 

The composition of their bodies creates a classical Renaissance pyramid, with the powerful diagonal sweep of the nebula behind them. And the painting’s style is similar to the girl with the doves in that it incorporates an economy of means consisting of anatomical contour lines, simple forms, a few detailed areas, and drapery that conveys the anatomy underneath. 

Starting with photos  of the nebula and the pencil sketch of the two women, I used Photoshop’s grid overlay, and then I taped black thread to enlarge the grid on the 64×48″ linen canvas. This enabled me to accurately draw with vine charcoal the composition on the canvas. The threads were then  pulled off the canvas, leaving no grid marks.  Next, I blocked-in the painting with semi-thin layers of oil paint mixed with Turpenoid and safflower oil, and I ended with undiluted thicker paint in the highlighted areas of their bodies, nebula, and the white cloth. 

The theme of universal empathy is supported by the convergence of technique and the subject matter, as follows: 

  1. Placing the women in blue celestial space dotted with stars introduces an element of universality. 
  2. Using the light to highlight the women’s faces and breasts–their breasts being symbolic of nurturing and intimacy.
  3. Making the women partly transparent creates a psychology of honesty.  The clean and brilliant colors of cool blue and warm gold give a sense of cool reason and emotional warmth. 
  4. Giving the women clear contour lines provides a sense of healthy boundaries and supports their trust and confidence in each other. 
  5. Providing the most intimate gesture of the painting is one woman’s elbow resting in the lap of the other. Her elbow is compositionally located in the center of the canvas, giving a sense that physical closeness is central to human connection.

The biggest influence is the sculpture of the goddesses on the east pediment of the Parthenon, with their intimate pose and flowing drapes. I explicitly planned the pose and wet-looking drapery of The Muses based on them. An interesting aspect of the Parthenon goddesses is that their faces, hands, and feet were destroyed, in part, by time and acts of defacement. It was an artistic challenge to move beyond the ancient work and imagine their completion.  

In addition to the influences of Classical Greek sculptures, I realized that the paintings of eighteenth-century artist Giovanni Battista Tiepolo–with his pastel-colored paintings of gods and goddesses looking down on humans from the sky–also played a part.  I did not see this influence until I was far along in the painting, and I thought, “Gosh, it looks a lot like a Tiepolo!”

There is also a debt of gratitude to Michelangelo’s and Picasso’s use of line.

My color theory, that I fully developed with its 16 variations in my 2020 Wave Series, has a profound effect on this work. I used the tints of magenta for the atmosphere, Prussian blue for depth, cadmium orange for the foreground, and Naples yellow in the light. This color theory is a radical departure from Classical and French Impressionist paintings.

Their transparent shadows solve two art problems. The transparency integrates them into the background setting, which is a very difficult thing to do without looking like cut and paste, and the transparency is a magnificent foil enhancing the light.

The intimacy of human touch makes us feel connected to the universe and to each other. It gives us a profound sense of calmness and care. It is, perhaps, the greatest antidote to stress and  feelings of alienation. A wonderful setting for this work would be a beautiful place to rest and regain one’s energy and equilibrium like a sun-filled atrium or a bedroom sanctuary. 

Michael, Idyllwild, November 19, 2022

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