The cavernous room was quiet, save for the sounds of rickety easels recoiling from the advance of bristle brushes. A soft, golden light descended from a large window that was high above all of our heads. The smell of medium, turpentine, and cigarettes had been absorbed into the cracked plaster walls, and would eventually become an odour associated with art itself. Footsteps quietly shuffled back and forth, artists walking away from the easel, now back again. An occasional scooter came screaming down the alleyway, and its noise traveled up the flight of marble steps to our studio. Nobody noticed, everyone was concentrating on the figure of a Serbian woman who was posing, seated at the far side of the room. There were twelve of us painting, immersed in the calligraphic contour of the middle eastern woman, translating the observations from the felt world to the world of the canvas.
Suddenly, the silence was broken by the sound of footsteps at the bottom of the marble steps. A unanimous groan went out, as every artist knew that the heavy heeled footsteps would soon bring some intruder to the door. Up the marble steps the confident footsteps marched, their steady momentum indicating purposeful walking. The hypnotic trance of painting had been broken, there would be a knock at the studio door any second now.
The door burst open, and in walked a short man who was face was swallowed by his heavy black trenchcoat, save for the plenteous burst of white whiskers which spilled out over his chest. His forehead was particularly flat, with a broad expanse of furrowed wrinkles disappearing into dark eye sockets. He stood with his legs widely spaced, his hands clenched behind his back, and his chin pointing up- he was assuming the position of importance. All the artists in the room were English, save for myself, and at that moment I was particularly glad to be in their company. The English have a wonderful way of being underwhelmed by anybody who demands attention. They stood with their brushes in their hands, their eyelids low, cigarettes hanging from their disenchanted lips, heads cocked to the side- their body language choreographed to send the most confident intruder into awkward retreat. But they did not know who they were dealing with.
“I am Pyotr Ilyovitch, head of Moskva Academy of Fine Arts, Professor Emeritus of Achademy Repin, ze only painter to win twice awards in Classical Figure, nine times elected to senior developer of ze Ecorchet Anatomic Studies, Recipient of Repin Award in Compositions, artistic advisor to scientific study paints at prestigious Hermitage Museum, and churrently am Painter in Residence at Russian School of International painting, Brussels. I would like to speak with ze Charles Cecil.”
Fifteen awkward seconds of silence elapsed, followed by “Quite right, I’ll go and get Charles for you. Wait here.”
Two minutes later, the low bass of Charles’ voice could be heard coming. I couldn’t quite make out words, but I knew from the intonation of his voice that he was in high spirits, and eager to speak with the guest. Charles burst through the door, squinting at the light, brushing aside short hair that was perpetually in his face. He had blue jeans on, and a tattered brown sport coat over a plain button down shirt. He approached the black trenchcoat and whiskers with bounding steps, hand extended, and with his plain, midwestern American accent said “Hi, Charles Cecil, welcome.”
And then, good heavens, it started all over again. In a deep, booming monotone Russian drone, the visitor proclaimed “I am Pyotr Ilyovitch, head of Moskva Academy of Fine Arts, Professor Emeritus of Achademy Repin, ze only painter to win twice awards in Classical Figure, nine times elected to senior developer of ze Ecorchet Anatomic Studies, Recipient of Repin Award in Compositions, artistic advisor to scientific study paints at prestigious Hermitage Museum, and churrently am Painter in Residence at Russian School International painting, Brussels.”
During the entire monologue, Charles stood with his hand thoughtfully placed on his chin, smiling softly. When the final word had marched out of the man’s mouth, Charles said in a booming, happy voice “Well, my my my. Now- can you paint?”
The room exploded, we were all laughing pretty hard. I had to leave the room because I was laughing so hard, I had tears rolling down my face.
Charles Cecil had absolutely no tolerance for artistic arrogance in any of its forms, whether it be the Doctor of Post Modern Studies in Woman’s Ethnic Art of the University of Harvard, or the head of the Repin Academy of Russia. With a keen ability to fell the tallest oak with a single swing of his axe, he is a sort of John Bunyan of Baroque painting, a self described keeper of the gate. He had created his world within Florence, and this world honored no titles. I found this altogether heartening, because he specifically reached beyond my inconspicuous background, and treated me as well as any aristocrat who walked through his doors.
The interesting thing about Charles is that he is a self described “man who danced with a woman who danced with a man who danced with Marie Antoinette.” His connection to John Singer Sargent, through his study with Gammell, and Gammell with Paxton, is the single element of distinction which he unceasingly touts. But deservedly so- he relayed to me an art that came from a different culture, a different people that trace back hundreds of years, through the French Academy, through the Flemish school, to the Spanish Baroque. I’m not saying there is a direct connection between me and these eras, but I am saying that my prior schooling in art was entirely devoid of inspiration. Studying with Charles was like having a dialogue with centuries. He once told me that Gammell mandated that he become a teacher and not a painter; Charles seemed particularly aware of the implications of this mandate, and asked me not to gloss over what he had done as I went on my way.
I once heard him define himself as an escapist, but he quickly clarified that there are periods of time in which it is necessary to escape. In his view, Modern Art has distinguished itself not by building the Pantheon, but by tearing it down. And so, he called for a retreat, and buried himself in the back alleyways of Florence. Escapism entailed a rejection of the vicarious existence of modernity. And so resulted the central tenets of his studio- paint with people and not from photographs, speak face to face rather than sorting through hulking bureaucratic systems of schools, paint something and not nothing (Sargent, not Pollock), experience a painting in person rather than googling an image onto a computer screen. Experience the substance, not the shadow, because a shadow can never be had.
And so, forgive me for what may come across as sycophantry- I think that Charles is important at this point in art history, for the simple fact that he called for a return to humanity.
I was never on the very inside of the Cecil Studios circle, I was never a teacher, but I did spend a fair amount of time with Charles in the studio, restaurants, and wine bars. I suppose I am writing this because I feel that history needs to remember him, and history might do well to hear the story from a person who wasn’t exactly among the remnant of the studio. I’m the contented, illegitimate child of Florence, New York, and Chile (details are fuzzy, allegedly a scandalous menage a trois). However, I came and went to the studios three times, staying for six months, sometimes for a year. I’ve written this today because I come across a lot of people in the New York art world that have never met Charles, yet have come to conclusions. I also realize that many of my readers have heard me refer to this name, but have no idea of the impact Charles has had on me and a generation of artists. And though I’m far from presenting a rounded synopsis of my teacher, perhaps this longwinded blog will help people understand the generous side that he always showed to me.
And so, I sullenly present to you BC. Before Charles. In order to illustrate my words, seeing is believing. This was the first painting I had ever done, before l had the veil lifted off of my eyes. I painted it under awful fluorescent greenish lighting, with an obnoxious palette of brilliant cadmium colours. I was lost, and forty five minutes in, I gave up. I contemplated never painting again, in order to spare mankind any undue suffering.
And now, I present to you AD. After Da period of study with Charles. This painting was done in Florence, over the period of six weeks. This painting is the visual manifestation of my dialogue with centuries of artists, through the person of Charles.
Click on this link to read more on this, from a different author:
Here’s a short film that was done to document the Cecil Studios: