An Artist’s Blog: The Story of a Chair Painting

Suzanne Ouelette’s popular painting exhibit will be closing September 6th.  It has been our most successful show in Rhinebeck to date.  If you haven’t seen the exhibit yet, I encourage you to do so in the next two weeks.  Suzanne’s work is very special and connects with the viewer in a profound way.  Suzanne shared this interesting back-story on one of her paintings in the exhibit.  Turns out she’s not only a wonderful artist, she’s a great writer as well! You can visit her website to read about other paintings in this exhibit  ( .  — Joan


Artists, Artists’ Armchairs, and Hammertown

This is the back-story of a particular painting in the Hammertown Rhinebeck exhibit, a painting inspired by Lucian Freud’s work. It seems especially right to tell it now. Freud, one of the world’s most recognized painters, died just a little over two weeks ago. See the Times obituary at:

Warning: Back-stories told by painters can be dangerous. What a painter says or writes about a painting can determine and thereby limit how a viewer looks at it. Back-stories can get in the way as viewers create their own understandings of what the painter was trying to do. Matisse said that painters should cut out their tongues. He feared painters would use words to make up for what they failed to do with paint. I don’t intend to do any of those dangerous things in this blog. My painting stands or falls, as it is, take the words only to add a little more human interest to what you are looking at.

The Story of a Chair Painting

Lucian Freud was an amazing painter. He worked with what appeared to be extraordinary stamina, determination, and focus up until his death at age 88. Some say he rescued and redefined the art of portraiture. He was called the world’s most famous and notorious painter of people. If painters pass on something to other painters as they die, it his ferociousness about painting with which I hope I could be blessed. For inspiration, I have books of reproductions of his paintings. One day, in the New York City studio, while looking through a book of reproductions of Freud’s work, a painting of a studio armchair stopped me in my tracks.

Freud’s chair is an old leather chair. Many bodies, including many naked bodies have sat in this chair. The New York Times writer begins his obituary provocatively as he describes Freud’s paintings of “splayed nudes in his studio.” Not hard to imagine those nudes in this chair. It shows lots of sagging, wear, and stains. While looking for a long time at the image, I thought how wonderful it would be to have such a chair in which so many people sat to be painted; how wonderful it would be to paint a piece of furniture that carried so many signs of life. Finally, taking my eyes up and out of the book, I saw that Freud was not the only painter with an amazing chair. I also had a very special studio chair at hand.

Saul Lambert, the wonderful painter who passed away two summers ago and whose studio I am using in the city, had as his favorite chair a modern leather piece. He found it on the street. This is a photograph of it with Tati, the famous cat that sometimes keeps me company when I paint. Like Freud’s chair, it is well used and large dark splotches mark its once cognac-colored leather. Like Freud’s chair, it showed many traces, many impressions, made by human bodies. I knew this is the chair I needed to paint. Just painting it would be a great project, but it also represented a way of paying homage to Lucian Freud and to Saul Lambert. I never paint alone when I paint.

Setting the composition went smoothly and quickly, at first. I placed the chair so that it was surrounded by Saul’s work. The only part of the set-up that troubled me was a repair made on the seat of the chair. A large tear had been covered over with wide, bright, white tape (see it just under Tati’s butt). The tape jumped out from the dark background of the chair and took over the composition. It had to be covered up.

First I tried a hat over the tape. That didn’t work. Then I tried a scarf, also wrong. A bunch of flowers were the third try, again a mistake. Finally, I got it! In a heel-of-the hand-to-the-forehead-moment (aka “duh”), I placed the book I had been reading over the nasty spot. The book was a perfect size and color. Best of all was what was inside the book. On Saul’s chair, I put the diary Martin Gayford kept during the 1-½ years he sat as a model on Lucian Freud’s chairs. Lucian Freud did an oil and then an etched portrait of Gayford from late 2003 through mid 2005 (Gayford, M. 2010. Man with a blue scarf. New York: Thames & Hudson). Gayford tells the story of what it was like to be painted by Freud for hours, day after day, for months. He writes about how he experienced being a model and about all that he as the model observed about the painter. He looked at Freud as long and as hard as Freud looked at him. With Gayford’s book in my painting, I could show a nod of thanks to Freud. I liked doing this painting so much that I did it twice. You can see it in both a small and large version at the Hammertown show (







Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *