Thursday, September 26, 2013

What did she look like?

A few weeks into the painting I was unhappy with her facial expression and chose to rework the head. Nobody panic! This isn't what the painting looks like now. The image is from August. I've also changed the hands and fabric since then. Reworking an oil painting is never as simple as painting over with more paint. The most permanent and satisfactory results can only be achieved by scraping and re-grounding. But this image gives me an opportunity to talk about her face, without revealing yet this most important aspect of the painting------------------

-------which will be unveiled on October 21st at 7pm, location TBD

How does one go about capturing the likeness of a person who lived and died before the advent of photographic technology? In the best of all possible worlds a detailed portrait or drawing might have been made in the person's lifetime. But painters, as Plato knew, are not always honest--thus the threat to civil society. If we compare a photograph of Madame Gautreau, with the portraits made of her, one can certainly detect differences. 

There are many paintings of St. Kateri, but only one made by a contemporary, and that made between 2-10 years after her death. Could even someone with some skill in painting create an accurate description of a person years after seeing them? 

Despite the difficulty, there are a few things we know absolutely about St. Kateri. There are, additionally, many things we can deduce from a knowledge of the time period, and from the writings of her contemporaries. Two Jesuit priests, Claude Chauchetière and Pierre Cholenec were her biographers and are my primary sources for information on her life. Ultimately, I see this painting as a balancing act between the historical record, and--what we might term--the theological record. By that I mean the specific iconographic conventions of her depiction as well as the broader traditions of sacred art. What follows is brief discussion of the decisions I've made, in light of the research I've done, regarding her form an appearance. I'll write a separate post about the details of her dress

First and foremost, she is a Mohawk, but of Algonquin decent. I'm sure most of us have a mental image of a Native American, informed by Hollywood, Disney, etc. Many scholars have written about this aspect of visual culture, and it is a fascinating subject, but in summary, many of the depictions of Native Americans in cinema are heavily romanticized, containing anachronistic elements, and incorporating elements of traditional dress from multiple of tribes.

In the Jesuit records she is described as having weak eyesight. Cholonec and Chauchetiere differ in the severity of the ailment. Chauchetiere stresses that her bout with small pox nearly blinded her. Cholonec notes only that her eyesight necessitated a hood to shield her eyes in direct sunlight. It's surprising that two men, both knowledgeable about St. Kateri, could write so differently about this basic issue. Her name, Tekakwitha, can be understood as "she moves things aside." This may refer to her poor eyesight. Yet we also know, from the Jesuits and from the recollections of her companions, that she was a skilled craftswoman, especially with bead work. She was even employed to make wampum belts, one of the most important objects in the communal and diplomatic life of the tribe. These belts were beautifully and delicately embroidered. Her documented skill as a craftswoman leads me to conclude that her eyesight, while poor, could not have been very bad.

Based on these possibilities, I have painted her in a shaded woodland scene, and illuminated by soft, indirect light under the trees. In the paintings this is evidenced in the change of temperature between the background and middle ground (warm highlights, cool shadows) and the foreground (cool highlights: pinks, peaches, and light greys, and warm shadows: rich blues, oranges and warm greens) It is plausible therefore that she appear with her blanket about her shoulders, in traditional Mohawk fashion, rather than concealing her face, as she would have worn it under direct sunlight.

In the variety of paintings, drawings, and sculptures made of St. Kateri, only one have I found with pockmarks on her face. And the artist has done a great job of concealing them. Based on her interpersonal relationships recorded by the jesuits, her pock marks may not have diminished her innate beauty. When she lived along the Mohawk she had suitors, and while in Canada she was capable of instilling enough jealousy in other women to prompt an groundless accusation of adultery. From Claude Chauchetière biography we know that upon her death, St. Kateri's face changed. Her pock marks were removed, and her face was radiant. Because of this I've chosen not to paint her face with pockmarks, and in this, my painting is consistent with others. Indeed, even in Chauchetiere's own portrait of St. Kateri, she does not appear pockmarked. 

There is of course a convention of depicting saints with their corporal infirmities, but only where a postmortem appearance occurred in which they visibly retained those elements. Christ's scars are the most prevalent example of this. Others, such as St. Bartholomew--who was flayed--are depicted as in a "restored" body. Often St. Bart is depicted holding a limp suit of his skin, yet he is still painted with normal human skin, not as someone would actually look after having been flayed--with exposed viscera and musculature. I believe there's something to be said in favor of a body in glory. St. Kateri is not dead but is alive and with God. It has been my determination to balance her historical person (the mohawk physical features and traditional dress), with her present glory (removal of blemishes)

1 comment:

  1. This is a great piece of art. I feel for the lady which has been portrayed by the artist. I think this picture is giving me a sense of spirituality and peace. Thank you for the article and the picture.

    Arnold Brame
    Health And Safety Consultant Peterborough