A longtime artist, author and horticulturist faces up to a new challenge
Artist Paul Gervais never painted portraits before 2020, but you wouldn’t know it from the clear command the septuagenarian painter displays across “Faces and Forms,” his current solo exhibition at Boca Raton Museum of Art.
Picked up as neither a lark nor a quarantine project, Gervais began the practice of painting the visages of friends and family after a transformative deep dive into the work of Lucian Freud, one of the art world’s preeminent portraitists.
“I was reading the newly published Life of Lucian Freud,” recalls Gervais. “It’s a wonderful book—two volumes, 600 pages each. And what impressed me is that his body of work is his autobiography, because he painted the people in his life, the women he married, his children, his famous artist friends, neighbors down the road. So I was thinking about that, and went downstairs one morning. Gil [Gervais’ husband and partner of 46 years] was there, and I took a picture of him and went to my studio, and I painted the first one of the series.”
Though new to portraits, Gervais’ artistic practice is a lifelong devotion, albeit with sizable hiatuses. He received his Master of Fine Arts from the San Francisco Art Institute but later shifted his focus to literature, penning memoirs as well as the PEN/Faulkner Award-nominated 1991 novel Extraordinary People, an episodic saga of a dysfunctional family. Gervais and Gil also poured their creativity into Villa Massei, a 60-acre estate near the ancient walled city of Lucca, Italy, where they cultivated one of the most famous gardens in the country, with its lush echoes of Renaissance horticulture.
The couple sold the estate in 2014, and today Paul and Gil winter in West Palm Beach, an easy drive from the “Faces and Forms” gazing from a second-floor gallery at the Boca Museum. The people Gervais paints all have backstories and a connection to the artist; one is a mentee of Gil’s from Dreyfoos School of the Arts, another is the cosmopolitan daughter of an owner of NASCAR, still another is the heavily tattooed former head of digital operations for Conde Nast.
Gervais discusses his process, and what goes into a successful portrait.
Should a portrait necessarily be flattering to the subject?
Definitely not. I don’t seek to flatter the subject, and I get responses all the time from people, especially about Gil, that, ‘oh, that’s not the Gil I know. He’s a smiling person.’ Well, we’re all smiling people at some point, but real portraiture—serious portraiture—does not show a smile. The artist is looking for a deeper take on a personality. A smile is very nice, but it’s usually fake for a camera. Serious portraiture requires that the subject look almost meditative, as if no one’s watching.
What element of the face was the most difficult to master?
There’s a great line attributed to John Singer Sargent that a portrait is the artist’s representation of a person in which something is not quite right about the mouth. … The mouth and eyes are the most difficult features. You can sometimes just make one little brush stroke, and it’s all changed, and you’ve lost that person.
Why do you work from photographs instead of live models?
I think it would be hard to get someone to come and sit for you. To do a portrait well, [you need] a minimum of eight hours over a couple of days. It requires a lot of patience, not only on their part but on my part. I don’t want to have to talk to them for eight hours, or worry about them, or think, oh dear, they’re so bored, I better hurry. It would make me nervous.
Could you paint pretty much anybody, or does the face have to spark inspiration for you?
I choose who I paint because I’m in some way taken with them. I paint people who physically, and also in terms of their character, intrigue me. It’s not always beauty; it can be other qualities. Is there a similar mindset when it comes to working a garden and working on a painting?
I think all the arts are linked. They are different disciplines, but these are various disciplines of art, and they all come from the same source. I know there was a lot of myself in that garden, just as there’s a lot of myself in these paintings.