Artifice and The Ideal: Classical Figuration Today

A survey and history of contemporary classical painting and the role that the classical arts of the past played in shaping its development.
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About Elsie Russell

Elsie Russell was born in 1956 in Nevers, France, of French and American parents. Her mother, Andrée Déscharnes, was a traditional painter of still lifes, as well as a textile designer for the ancient French line of Nobilis in Paris, and later with Gloria Bucé in New York where she specialized in intricate floral and botanical wallpapers and fabrics. Déscharnes got her artistic training first in Nevers, then went on to become a wartime graduate of the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts of Paris.

Elsie Russell's father, Alfred Russell, was also a painter, who began his career as an abstract expressionist, gaining recognition on both sides of the Atlantic in the early post war years. Beginning in the Fifties, dissatisfied with the direction abstraction was going in with its recent commercialization and alienation from the human condition, he switched to a figurative style inspired by the art of Hellenistic Greece as well as that of Picasso of the Twenties. He had been studying for a doctorate at Columbia University under art historian Margarete Bieber and the study of Greek art and thought opened up new avenues for understanding the modern dilemma. Russell became an important member of the art scene at this time, as a member of "the Club", frequented by Wilhelm De Kooning, Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko, and particularly, Stanley William Hayter of Atelier 17 in Paris and New York, where Russell was immersed in a dynamic that would shape the rest of the century.

Alfred Russell's new direction towards figuration quickly brought a rift with many of this circle of artists and his influence shifted to a more esoteric group, the new figurative artists coming out of New York, many coming out of Alfred Russell's legendary courses at Brooklyn College, CUNY, where he would teach for the next twenty-five years. Here, he helped restore the traditional program, reviving the study of anatomy, and adding the drawing of sculpture and the copying old master paintings in museums to the established training.

The Russell home was an atelier itself, with two working artists, incoming students, artists from all walks of life and Andree made sure to guide her daughter as early as possible with the basic foundations for drawing, seeing form and color. Alfred took Elsie, as well as his students, to the museums for advance study sessions, drawing from sculpture and understanding the elements of the great painting techniques and elements of composition and expression. In Paris, he would go to Atelier 17 and make copper engravings and etchings with Hayter and show his daughter the basics of the burin, dry point etching, preparing the paper, inking and using the press. Once again, immersing in the atelier system.

Another factor that runs through the life of the Russell family is the connection to Salvador Dali, through his relationship to Andrée's brother, the photographer and art book writer Robert Désharnes, who was the lifelong biographer and secretary to this stellar artist. Both Andrée and Elsie had continuous contact with the master, working with him in Spain and New York and getting casual instruction and advice from him in art as well as philosophy and even science.

Elsie spent her adolescence mostly in Italy, first with her parents and some of Alfred's students, then when Alfred and then Andrée became ill, Elsie was enrolled at St Stephen's boarding school in Rome, where she graduated in 1974.

Elsie attended the Baudry Atelier Préparatoire aux Ecoles d'Arts in Paris, and studied anatomy and life drawing with Robert Beverly Hale at the Art Student's League of New York. Elsie also attended Pratt Institute, then worked as gallery assistant and manager for two New York galleries, Tatischeff Galleries on 57th Street and Alexander Milliken Gallery on Prince Street, Soho.

It was during this period that Elsie, who continued her studies independently, realized that now that her father was no longer teaching, there were no American Beaux Arts Atelier- type academies where a complete discipline could be followed. Elsie, with Alfred's Brooklyn College colleague Milet Andrejevic and Alfred's student Edward Schmidt, laid the groundwork for a New York Ecole des Beaux Arts which was to later become the New York Academy of Art in 1982.

This dream came into being thanks to the efforts of collector and philanthropist Stuart Pivar and an elite group of American art historians and museum professionals such as David B. Lawall of the Bayley Museum in Charlottesville, VA, and Prof. Albert Boime of UCLA, author of The Academy and French Painting in the Nineteenth Century. One thing Elsie wanted to include in this new school was to have, along with large Academy classes, a focus on on smaller intensive atelier type classes with close supervision and collaboration with the teacher to set a working discipline as example beyond an academic environment, just as Elsie had had during her formative years. She emphasized this approach during her time as teacher for the NY Drawing Association and later in NYAA. Also, this approach emphasizes a freer creativity, away from the encroachment of stale, narrow academic boundaries, a crucial personal stylistic formation that is today a modern necessity.

In 1983, after her work founding the New York Academy, Elsie Russell, at 25 had her first one person exhibit at the Bayley Museum in Charlottesville -- the first non-university diploma carrying artist to do so. The exhibit filled the large central room of the Thomas Jefferson designed museum and was surrounded on all sides with masterpieces of American 18th and 19th century neo-classicism.

Shortly thereafter Elsie settled in New Orleans, Lousiana, where she painted an 18 foot mural for the French quarter mansion of Dr. Brobson Lutz, and regularly worked on commissioned portraits and small works as well as continuing her explorations into a modern interpretation of pre-classical and classical mythological themes.

This led to the 1987 Boise Gallery of Art, Idaho, exhibit, Modern Myths:Classical Renewal, that went on to tour the Northwest. (Yellowstone Art Enter, Billings Montana, Washington Sate University Museum of Art in Pullman and Mills College Art Gallery, Oakland California.)

In 1988 Elsie Russell relocated back to New York, where she became involved in the figurative painting revival happening there, and in 1995, in the development of the Internet with a web museum and in writing articles and organizing web involvement for the new figuration with an exhibit and general awareness. Exhibiting regularly until 2000, Elsie then added fiction to her interests with a novel, In Over Her Head, completed in 2007 that was an Amazon Fiction competition Semifinalist out of thousands of entries.

In 2010, Elsie Russell returned to her motherland of France to establish her life in Avignon, France, a long held dream. There she paints in a large 15th century studio in what was a building that was the stables of the nearby palace of Good King Rene (1409-1480), Comte de Provence, king of Naples, Jerusalem and Aragon, who was himself a great Renaissance humanist and art patron. Across the street is the site of the Chapelle Ste. Clare, where the poet Petrarch met his true but unrequited love, Laura, and launched the Humanist Renaissance in Europe.

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