Old School Master: Joseph Nicoletti

by Stephen May

At a time when few artists seem to know how to draw, compose or choose the right colors for their work, Joseph Nicoletti stands out as an exemplar of fundamentals and academic achievement. A teacher and painter who employs a full arsenal of academic weapons, he paints still lifes, landscapes and occasional history paintings steeped in time-honored tradition, but with tweaks that reflect his personal and emotional responses to his subject matter. His paintings blend classical realism, deft draftsmanship, an astute compositional sense and a keen eye for color. His works, moreover, are tantalizingly infused with historical, mythological and religious themes. At the same time, Nicoletti works hard—and quite successfully—to make his art accessible to experts and laymen. In large part because he paints in Maine and Italy, away from the galleries and tastemakers of New York City, and because he is a modest man reluctant to hype his own work, Nicoletti is a quintessential example of a superb artist who should be much better known. With roots in Italy, bolstered by thorough study of art history and the old masters, and extensive sojourns abroad, Nicoletti is that rare breed nowadays who takes the art of the past seriously—and adapts its qualities to his own objectives. As Jeffrey M. Miller, professor of Art History at Brown University, has observed, Nicoletti’s art is “engaged in a dialogue with the history of art which invites historical comment up to the point at which it becomes clear how personal and immediate the works really are.”1 

Bug Light, 1987  Collection of David and Barbara Turitz

Born in Toiritto, Apulia, Italy, in 1948, Nicoletti emigrated with his family to Toronto when he was four, and two years later moved to Queens. His father was a cement maker and mason who worked in construction around New York City and had a “passion for opera.” Young Nicoletti had a “great experience” in the New York public schools, highlighted by activities such as visits to the United Nations and a Leonard Bernstein rehearsal.2 When he was studying at Queens College, he recalls, most faculty members were devoted to Abstract Expressionism and big fans of Willem de Kooning. Taking art history and drawing classes, he received “lots of encouragement” for his artistic endeavors from teacher Robert Birmelin, a painter of vigorous city scenes. Pursuing an M.F.A. at Yale, Nicoletti encountered a faculty of twelve to fifteen, of whom “two were representational painters,” he remembers. He benefited particularly from studying under William Bailey, the noted still-life painter, who stressed drawing the figure and talked a lot about the history of art. For a time, Nicoletti served as Bailey’s assistant, and he still sees his old mentor in Italy, where Bailey spends part of the year, and at Bailey’s home in New Haven.

After graduating from Yale, Nicoletti taught for eight years at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine; since 1981, he has been an art lecturer at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, (Marsden Hartley’s hometown). Unlike many artists who resent having to teach, Nicoletti relishes interaction with students, earning a reputation as an empathetic mentor with rigorous standards. Whether studio majors or future lawyers, Nicoletti wants his pupils “to see the world differently because of taking a class with me.” He emphasizes that “being an artist is a tough life.” It’s not just about having skills. “Talent is cheap,” he observes, “a lot of people have talent. Being an artist is about work and a lot of thinking. It’s an intellectual exercise—not just manual skills.” Outside his academic career, Nicoletti has pursued serious easel work, influenced by travels in Europe and especially by directing the International School of Art in Umbria, Italy, 2004–08. Today, he continues to teach at Bates and sojourns frequently in Italy and other parts of Europe.

He makes his home on a quiet side street in South Portland, Maine, where he works in a light-filled studio in a converted garage attached to the house. The walls of the orderly studio are adorned with small reproductions of old master works and stills from Hollywood film noir classics, which intrigue him. This summer, several easels held works in progress for an exhibition, November 3–26, 2011, at Greenhut Galleries in Portland.

Genial and unpretentious, Nicoletti talks thoughtfully about the wellsprings of his work and his approach to painting. It is clear that he has pondered long and hard about the classical tradition, about European and American artists whose work he likes and about how to address different subjects on canvas. Among his artistic heroes: Bellini, Caravaggio, Delacroix, Dix, Goya, Tintoretto and Velázquez, and such Americans as Bellows, Demuth, Hartley, Charles Sheeler and especially the relatively unknown Walter Murch, whose roughly surfaced paintings, sense of light and subject matter, “with a nod to Chardin,” he admires.3 “I’m a controlling person,” Nicoletti says mildly, noting that he likes nature but may choose to depict it beyond its representational look. Often changing his mind as a painting proceeds, he responds to what is developing on the canvas and may decide to alter the image. It would be “boring” he adds, if you always did what you intended from the start. While committed to honoring the traditional verities in his work, he underscores that he hopes it will be understood by all kinds of viewers. At the same time, he likes to invoke symbolism that everybody should know about and wants his art to convey messages. He uses photographs on occasion, but is wary of them because he “sees broader views.”

<i>Casa Rosa</i>, 2006 <br/>  Private collection

Throughout his career, Nicoletti has concentrated on outdoor and indoor images that represent quiet meditations on historical and personal memories. His academic colleague Muller observed, in an essay accompanying a retrospective last year at the Bates College Museum of Art: “From the start,…Nicoletti’s art has depicted a quiet, circumscribed place, inhabited by a distinct spirit and graced with beautiful craft.” While noting the artist’s tendency “to play with the conventions of genre,” Muller underscores “the deeply personal gaze that Nicoletti keeps throughout his work.”4

In the 1970s, after visits to Europe, especially Italy, Nicoletti returned to his Bowdoin studio fired up by Caravaggio, Tintoretto and other artists whose work he had studied firsthand. Setting the course for his embryonic painting career, his work during this period included classically inspired, introspective self-portraits in his Bowdoin studio that ranged from “what I saw” to more ambitious compositions, such as a hand reaching into the space of his workplace, essentially a self-portrait of a questing artist.

Nicoletti’s landscapes of Maine and Italy reflect the diverse topography of each place, and his penchant for observing and then working from memory in response to his emotions. He finds his adopted state has a “cut, sharp, even brutal” landscape, reflected in paintings of red brick structures abutting Portland Harbor and views from his back steps over boxy houses and trees to vibrant blue water beyond. He says he tries to “avoid Maine cliches,” even though the terrain and structures tend to be so compelling. One of his most appealing Maine canvases, Bug Light (1987, 22-by-30 inches), depicts the stubby, white Portland lighthouse flanked by the white sails of a boat in the harbor and, in the distance, the low, solid, greystone form of venerable Fort Gorges. It began with a sketch on the spot, followed by the larger painting that documents the elegant, cast-iron Corinthian columns of the lighthouse. The stillness reflects the fact that, as the artist puts it, he was “thinking of [Edward] Hopper.”

Nicoletti seems more at home conveying the “smoother, rolling hills” and “patterns of fields” of Umbria, where he has spent so much time. The school he directed there is located high on a hill, offering panoramic views of the picturesque Tiber Valley. Whether depicting red-roofed farm buildings and green trees framing tan fields from a bird’s eye perspective or ground-level views of effulgent sunflowers or storms over Umbrian farmland, Nicoletti’s canvases are filled with affectionate familiarity and academic structure, with dashes of spontaneous brushwork. Most feature high horizons—in sunny blues or shaded by grey storm clouds. Nicoletti likes to “play with water reflections,” as epitomized by two 2006 paintings, Casa Rosa and Tevere Umbria, in which radiant river water mirrors the surrounding terrain, adding a romantic glow to land dotted with solid farm buildings. Nuance, color, texture and composition are the orders of the day here.

The most intriguing of his Umbrian images is Classical Head with Landscape (2005), which combines elements of still life and landscape. The plaster cast of a pensive young man, which he found on a shelf in the school’s library, is set on a sill or flat surface in the foreground. Below and beyond, a checkerboard pattern of brown and green fields and forests stretches to a grey mountain range, topped by fleecy clouds and a multi-hued blue sky. It is a poetic picture that convincingly conveys the look and feel of the manicured Umbrian countryside. Early in his career, Nicoletti thought about becoming strictly a still-life painter, but had doubts about whether such works would ever generate much interest. In recent years, he has returned to that genre with spectacular results. His still lifes, rooted in classical tradition, stand out for their precise brushwork, vivid colors and idiosyncratic compositions. For a time, he did not work from prearranged objects, but of late he has been carefully assembling fruits, vegetables, flowers and vases in advance—arrangements that he may change before he is finished. He starts with a sketch before painting the final image.

Nicoletti’s visit to Cézanne’s studio in Aix, where mock-ups of his still lifes are displayed, may have influenced the tilted perspective, clean lines, evocative shadows, striped tablecloth and decorative background of Three Oranges (1995). According to Muller, Still Life, Lilies (1996–97) “contains all the illusionistic games and virtues of the genre: a limited and clearly defined space, a table…cut off at the bottom to project out,…the red striped towel—hanging over the table’s edge—tempting the viewer to reach it, a transparent vase filled with water to refract the light from the earthen-ware vase behind it, and a curtain to act as the foil against which the artist can paint flat-on-flat.” Muller adds that the picture “is filled with silvery green light, warmed by the pink and white flowers which, with their exquisite tracery, break the strict symmetry. Light and flowers combine to infuse the atmosphere with a spiritual presence. One can imagine the angel Gabriel on one side of the table greeting Mary on the other, as in an Annunciation painted in Quattrocento Italy.”5

The Golden Bowl, 2003  Collection of Carol Andrae and Jim Garland

Religious associations are more explicit in the large Still Life after Bellini (2003), inspired by an image Nicoletti spotted in a catalogue of a fifteenth-century Workshop of Bellini Madonna and Child from the National Gallery in London. In Nicoletti’s version, the central figures are replaced by a tall brown vase of white lilies, the traditional symbol of Mary’s chastity, fronted by a small bowl of figs and flanked by red lilies and thistles, often symbols for the mother’s grief at her son’s crucifixion. Of added interest are a warbler in the foreground and a lizard on the vase, each eyeing a fly amidst the figs, suggesting, says Muller, “the violent, fallen state of nature.”6 The background is a green, brocaded cloth seemingly suspended in mid-air, between landscapes of Maine, on the left, and Italy, on the right, the two places where the artist has done most of his painting. It is an accomplished and compelling picture. Other notable still lifes include Night Still Life, Cactus (1991), measuring an imposing 50-by-40 inches, in which crisply defined and adroitly lighted objects stand out dramatically against a black background, and the exquisitely composed and painted The Golden Bowl (2003). Each demonstrates Nicoletti’s mastery of light, space, color, precision and composition.

Nicoletti combines portraiture and still life in an intriguing series of 2005 Self-Portraits, in which the artist’s then-bearded reflection appears in mirrors behind tables holding a variety of objects, including a pomegranate and a persimmon. Perhaps homages to Velázquez’s reflected image in his famed La Meninas, which the artist had studied at the Prado, these are compelling images in their own right. On several occasions, Nicoletti has created striking historical paintings, most ambitiously—and controversially—in Sardanapalus (1998), a pared-down, masterful take-off on Eugene Delacroix’s The Death of Sardanapalus (1827), with touches of Otto Dix’s themes of love, sex and murder.7 Delacroix’s gruesome, chaotic painting audaciously embellishes the story of the suicide of the Assyrian king Sardanapalus, who after decades of sybaritic pleasure, defeated by his enemies, decides to end his life by placing his throne on a funeral pyre, which is to be set on fire by his favorite concubine. In Delacroix’s bird’s-eye version, the king’s throne is replaced by a large red bed, heaped with objects that gave the monarch pleasure: his mistresses (who have been murdered), jewels, golden vessels, bows and arrows for hunting and his horse, who is being stabbed by a black slave. Sardanapalus, relatively young and vigorous, reclines in his bed, drinking wine and casually watching the unfolding scene that will lead to his demise. It is, in Muller’s words, a “sensual display of colors, textures, exotic treasures and sadistic eroticism.” 

In Nicoletti’s simplified version, also depicted from a high perspective, the red bed, which takes up much of the picture plane, is dominated by the splayed body of one of the king’s concubines, her throat neatly cut. Next to her is a dead black dog. At the other end, the old, grey-bearded king sleeps or is dead. “Delacroix’s luxurious Orientalism has been stripped away,” Muller observes, “and a sex murder remains, like some of those painted by early twentieth-century German Expressionists,” like Dix, whose work fascinates Nicoletti. As Muller points out, Nicoletti’s version has a “strong old-master presence…, with its red bedspread painted on a dark ground, the prophet-like bearded figure of Sardanapalus, the fine balance of composition, and the well-drawn nude.”8 Although Nicoletti says he did not mean to shock viewers with his gory narrative, its theme of sexual violence has disturbed some people. A few years back, when he sought to include Sardanapalus in a Boston gallery exhibition, the dealer refused to display it, and the show was cancelled. On the other hand, the work has been shown, with no adverse reaction, at Greenhut Galleries and at Bates College.9 While Nicoletti has not repeated the Sardanapalus adventure, he continues to allude to the old masters in his landscapes, still lifes and self-portraits. They are a welcome sight at a time when so many museums and galleries are cluttered with ineptly created works with incomprehensible images.

Marching to his own drummer and armed with impeccable tools, this artist will surely continue to create works infused with his personal character, integrity, skill and knowledge of art history. His solid grounding in the fundamentals will stand him in good stead in the grand art that lies ahead. It is clear that Joseph Nicoletti sets high goals and knows what he is doing. With sufficient exposure, his work will stand the test of time and be appreciated into the future.

Notes

1. Jeffrey M. Muller, essay in exhibition brochure for “Joseph Nicoletti: Paintings and Drawings,” Greenhut Galleries, Portland, Maine, p. 1. Hereafter referred to as Muller, “Essay.”

2. All Nicoletti quotes are from an interview with the author in the artist’s studio, July 27, 2011.

3. Walter Tandy Murch (1907–67), a Canadian-born American artist, painted moody still lifes of motors, machine parts, clocks, broken dolls and rock fragments, often incongruously combined with more traditional elements such as fruits, flowers or bread. Presented as though seen through frosted glass, Murch’s work has been compared to that of eighteenth-century French still-life master Jean-Simeon Chardin, while his oddly marred and pitted surfaces evoke twentieth-century Abstract Expressionists.

4. Jeffrey M. Muller, “Poetry and History in Joseph Nicoletti’s Art,” essay in exhibition catalogue Joseph Nicoletti: A Retrospective (Lewiston, Maine: Bates College Museum of Art, 2010), p. 7. Hereafter referred to as Muller, Retrospective.

5. Muller, “Essay,” pp. 3–4.

6. Muller, Retrospective, p. 12.

7. Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863) was a leading French Romantic known for the violence and sensuality of his canvases. In 1830, three years after he painted Sardanapalus, he completed his best-known work, Liberty Leading the People, commemorating the July Revolution of 1830 that toppled Charles X. Scarred by service at the front in World War I, German painter Otto Dix (1891–1969) used an old master idiom to unsparingly depict the terror and carnage he had witnessed in the trenches, and the modern evils of the chaotic, decadent Weimar Republic and the authoritarian Third Reich. His portrayals of sex murders influenced Nicoletti’s Sardanapalus.

8. Muller, “Essay,” pp. 2–3.

9. In an August 18 email, Peggy Greenhut Golden, Director, Greenhut Galleries wrote of their 2000 show: “We did not receive any adverse reactions to Sardanapalus…[and] as a matter    of fact some people were fascinated by it and felt it was a ‘museum piece.’” Nicoletti agrees, observing that “there were no complaints from any viewers of the shows.”

American Arts Quarterly, Fall 2011, Volume 28, Number 4