Haynes Galleries through March 17
WORDS Karen Parr-Moody
“There’s this connection across time. And it gives us immortality.”
His life was a brief flame snuffed out, almost certainly, by the bubonic plague that ravaged Italy in 1510. He is believed to have died around the age of 33 on an island, Lazzaretto Vecchio, which was then a hellish place of quarantine surrounded by the placid Venetian lagoon. He lacked the longevity of Titian—88 years—so his body of work is paltry, and hardline critics will attribute only a handful of paintings to him. Yet Giorgio Barbarelli da Castelfranco, or simply Giorgione, remains a reverential figure and retains a cult following among painters.
Elusive yet influential, Giorgione left us landscape paintings that exist on a dreamlike plane. By virtue of sfumato—the fine-spun type of chiaroscuro used by Leonardo da Vinci—he created the masterpiece Young Man with Arrow in which a delicate youth, rendered in gossamer brushstrokes, remains suspended in time.
Painter Richard Greathouse, 31, is only slightly younger than was Giorgione when his body was placed in a mass grave. While a modern-day portrait artist, Greathouse is a spiritual contemporary of the Italian painter he admires, but is largely unknown today. “There’s a certain soft poetry happening in Giorgione’s work that conveys both mystery and sensitivity,” Greathouse says “There’s just something about his work that is very enigmatic and draws me in.”
Enigma is intrinsic to Giorgione’s paintings, and the works of Greathouse possess a similar tone. This is not simply due to the atmosphere created by his tender brushstrokes or the absence of hard edges, what Greathouse dubs “a strong softness.” Rather, it exists within the sitters themselves, for the artist sees no replacement for the phenomenon that occurs when he sits with a subject, painting for hours.
“When you’re working from life, there’s something quite intense and somewhat uncomfortable in a good way,” Greathouse says. “When you’re sitting in a room with one person and there’s just silence, and you’re looking at them for hours, the intensity of that situation just comes out in the painting, whether you want it to or not. Not to be too extreme here, but the miracle of every moment when someone’s in front of you, there’s such beauty in that.
“Trying to experience the fullness of reality is what gives you beautiful work,” he adds. “I’m not trying to make my work beautiful; I’m trying to experience it as sincerely and fully as I can, and the fact that something might come out beautiful or not is sort of a by-product.”
It follows logically that Greathouse should be represented by Haynes Galleries, that bastion of esteemed, even famous, classical painters, including Andrew Wyeth, John Singer Sargent, and Winslow Homer. It is a gallery filled with works that are expressive by way of an impassioned whisper.
Greathouse graduated from and continues to teach at Florence Academy of Art. He was introduced to oil painting by his Montgomery Bell Academy art instructor Rosemary “Rosie” Pascal, an Oxford graduate who also taught at St. Andrew’s-Sewanee School and Harpeth Hall School. Greathouse couldn’t have known it then, but his beloved medium of oil paint was preordained when she gave him a copy of a Lucian Freud painting.
“That was the one of the first times I realized how much I love the materiality of paint,” he says. “Oil painting is a visual art, but it is also a very physical art in the sense that you have to understand the materiality of the paint to get the best results. For me, the tactile quality of moving the paint around the surface of the canvas is every bit as important as what that painting ends up looking like in the end. In fact, I think those things are sort of inextricably linked.”
His recent paintings result from his foray into a technique called indirect painting, by which he builds up multiple layers of paint to create a surface that is alive on its own. In the painting Camilla II, Greathouse captures what he calls the “inscrutable shyness” of the model by brushing smoky layers of paint onto the canvas. For Self-Portrait with Palette, half of Greathouse’s face is enshrouded in nebulous shade; it is a piece made compelling through the careful use of materials.
For Conversation with Mitch, Greathouse chatted with a friend in his Florentine studio, watching the sun stream through a small window into the subject’s eyes as he painted. “That was very fitting, because he’s such a deeply thoughtful guy,” he says. “It was as if the light were a visual representation of his thoughts, and I wanted to capture that look.” The skin of Mitch is comprised of a subtle patchwork of tones built up with a palette knife, creating a texture that gives the surface vibrancy.
The paintings by Greathouse suggest a romantic mind that understands human beings’ sameness of spirit. It comes as no surprise that, in addition to admiring Giorgione, he admires the timeless quality of Fayum portraits, which flourished in Roman Egypt. Sometimes placed atop the faces of mummies, they are evidence of the universality of portrait paintings, regardless of time or space.
“It’s the feeling of empathy,” Greathouse says. “You sort of simultaneously know nothing about them; you just see their visage. Yet you also somehow know everything about them. Because they are what we are; we are of the same stuff.”
As with Giorgione’s figure paintings and the Fayum portraits, oil paintings by Greathouse retain the coexisting distance and intimacy of a prehistoric dragonfly preserved in amber, which we can examine closely but never touch.
“There’s this connection across time,” Greathouse says. “And it gives us immortality.”