Paul Oxborough's modern paintings have Old Master's grace
18 x 24 inches
Oil on linen
$8,700 (© Eleanor Ettinger Inc. 2001)
NEW YORK (CNN) -- The self-portrait of the
young artist, done in rich dark tones, looks
like a work by Rembrandt. The vibrant painting
of an elegant woman in a soft yellow sweater
looks like a society portrait by John Singer
But both paintings are by Paul Oxborough, a
young artist from Minnesota, whose work at the
turn into this new century recalls the master
painters at the turn of the last.
In an age of video installations and conceptual
art made with anything from neon to embalmed
animal parts, Oxborough, 35, works with the
materials Renoir used: a muted palette of oil
paints; a canvas of fine Belgian linen.
At first glance, many of the figures in his
work look Old World.
The white-haired man in "At the Museum" has the
face of a Victorian gentleman -- but he's
dressed in a contemporary jacket and tie. The
refined woman in the yellow sweater is seated
on antique gold brocade -- but posed loose-
limbed in black slacks.
"Almost all my work comes from real life," says
Oxborough, a slender man with a long, dark
ponytail and a beard that is not altogether
successful in making his face less boyish.
"I paint things I actually see: my wife Jenny
on a train, my daughter waking up, a guy in a
"And I paint the way I think people see -- not
with photographic accuracy, but with
impressions. I think of myself as an
impressionist -- painting the impression of
light hitting your eyes; the impression of
color you see at a glance."
The Crayola period
Oxborough has loved making art for as long as
he can remember.
Artist Paul Oxborough at the Eleanor Ettinger Gallery in New York City
In his earliest years, his Crayola period, "I
was just another kid, drawing on the walls," he
says with a laugh. But by grade school, he was
already showing promise in drawing.
"I remember being in fourth or fifth grade, and there
was a minishow where they put our work up on
the walls -- and I remember mine was the best.
That isn't to be prideful. I just could see
that mine was the best."
By the time Oxborough entered St. Louis Park
High School in suburban
Minneapolis, he was "serious about my art," and lucky enough to have an art teacher, Robert
"Doc" Anderson, who both recognized and
encouraged Oxborough's talent.
"He was my first mentor," Oxborough says. "He
loves, really loves, painting. He taught me so
much. He told me that you had to look at an
artist's life, not just their work."
The prevailing stereotype of the "artist's
life" had troubled the young Oxborough. "You
think when you're starting out that being an
artist means wearing lots of ripped-up clothes,
living a funky life with paint all over the
place -- the Bohemian life," he says.
"I remember being 18 and having a conflict
about that. I didn't have a lot of angst. I
respected my father; people who worked and
wanted their kids to go to college; people
who'd been married for 40 years. I wanted
that for myself.
"Doc Anderson said, 'Well, look at Monet -- he
had four stepchildren and three children. He
was a nice man; he paid his bills on time; he
did all the things that Mr. Cleaver did -- and
was still a great painter.' And I loved that.
I thought, I can do this."
After high school graduation, Oxborough
attended the Minneapolis College of Art and
Design for a year, then went through four
years of rigorous study in a local atelier, or
artist's workshop, studying art in the French
"First One Up"
34 x 44 inches
Oil on linen
$17,000 (© Eleanor Ettinger Inc. 2001)
"That's another connection to Sargent," Oxborough says.
"That's the way he studied -- working
from nature, working from the model."
And working, for the entire first year, on
doing drawings only, in black and white only --
no color, no painting.
In the second year, he advanced to working with
oil paint -- but only in black and white. It
was elemental, fundamental training that
Oxborough believes is essential to a fine
artist, akin to a musician mastering scales
and intervals before becoming a virtuoso.
"White's the hardest to paint, I think," says
Oxborough. "You paint something white, there's
no really true white on the canvas -- pure white
out of the tube. I use all of my colors to mix
an impression of white."
One of Oxborough's most admired paintings is
"First One Up," an early-morning scene of his
wife and two daughters stirring awake in a
London hotel room.
Sunlight streams across a rumpled expanse of
bleached bed sheets that seem painted with broad
brushings of pure white. But the "white"
sheets are rendered. surprisingly, in lavender,
blue, pink, yellow and aqua.
Oxborough spent the better part of a year in
Europe after completing his atelier training.
He and his wife took their four children to
France for several months; the family later
traveled to Spain and Portugal, England and
"At the Museum"
7 x 5 inches
Oil on linen/panel
$1,800 (© Eleanor Ettinger Inc. 2001)
Much of Oxborough's work makes up a
kind of family album -- of color "snapshots" done
in oil: his son in a Portuguese barnyard; his
daughters crossing a river in a French ravine;
his daughters and his wife in a London hotel
Oxborough's wife, Jenny, is his favorite model
and muse: He has painted Jenny at the piano,
Jenny on the patio, Jenny at the family dinner
table. "I've painted her hundreds of times,"
says the artist. "Part of it is, she's always
willing to sit for me," he says with a laugh. "She
especially loves napping poses."
Oxborough is a thoughtful, deliberate painter.
He prefers to paint scenes that are still, to
paint figures posed in repose.
"I like the idea of people working, moving, but that's hard
to do -- it's hard to capture people in motion," he says. "I have a lot of people at rest, for
obvious reasons: because they sit still."
Yet the two men shown standing motionless
behind the bar in "The Bartenders"
are not static; they're just in a
lull between an order for a martini straight
up and another-sad-story cried into a
"It's the end of the night and they're
done," says Oxborough. "They're not moving,
but we know that they were, and will again."
Many of Oxborough's works are captured moments
He tries hard to vary his scenes; not to do too
many paintings of bartenders, of Jenny sitting
at a table. "That can be a dangerous trap," he
says "You can be typecast -- 'Oh, he's the guy
who does the women on the beach in white
He shouldn't worry. The New York City gallery
that has handled Oxborough's work for four
years cites his broad range for the growing
demand -- and price collected -- for his
"There is such diversity to his
subject matter, and palette -- from dark
interior scenes to dappled sunlit exteriors,"
says James Umphlett, vice president of the
Eleanor Ettinger Gallery.
Oxborough has the skill to capture the exact
quality of light from any source: the warm
flicker of a candle through milk glass; the
harsh buzz of a fluorescent tube under a
mahogany bar; a shimmer of July sunlight over
a meadow; an icicle of light through a
northern window in Minnesota in February.
He will spend hours painting and repainting
light -- the way it glints off a gold wedding
ring, the way it forms shadows in the folds of
a dress, the way it falls from under a paper
lampshade. "It's hard to make a hunk of paint
look like a light that's on," he says.
A perfectionist's eye
But he can, and he does. Those who collect
Oxborough's work almost invariably mention his
rendering of light.
"His painting uses light in an incredibly
skillful way," says New York City art collector
Joan Rosenberg. She and her husband Neal have
four Oxborough paintings in their collection,
which includes Jasper Johns, Lichtenstein and
Picasso. "That's exactly what draws me to his
work -- that kind of talent."
Oxborough has nine new paintings in a current
exhibition, "The Figure in American Art," at
the Eleanor Ettinger Gallery. They
range from a sun-splashed portrait of Jenny to
a candlelit study of a man in thought. They
range in size from "The Bartenders," a wall-
filling 4-by-3 feet, to "At the Museum," just 7-by-5 inches.
In New York for the opening of the exhibition,
which runs through February 11, Oxborough cast
a critical eye on his nine paintings. He
admits he is a perfectionist -- perpetually
unsatisfied, even after 100 hours of painting
and repainting a single canvas.
"I see my works, and it's all a bunch of
mistakes to me," he says, with a rueful shake
of his head.
He points to "The Bartenders." "There's 20 layers of changes under there."
"Some artist said, 'You never like a painting; you just give up on it.'"
Paint atop paint
He says his studio in Minneapolis is full of
paint-stratified canvasses he's given up on --
at least for now. He throws out those that are
so paint-laden they cannot hold another daub.
"For every painting I do, there's another
painting that I think I can paint and I end up
not being able to. I haven't unlocked the
mystery of it," says Oxborough.
He indicates the smallest painting in the
exhibit, the little 7-by-5 inch portrait of the
elderly man in the museum.
"I saw this man at the Ashmolean Museum in
Oxford, and I made a quick sketch of him. I
planned this as a much larger painting, but
when I tried to make it bigger, it didn't work.
It lost all of its charm. Maybe I didn't have
enough detail of the man -- and I can't go back
to Oxford to find him."
But a careful look at the little painting shows
a wealth of detail about the man, detail
painted and implied: the press of his white
shirt; the weave of his tweedy jacket. He is
not just a man, but a gentleman; not just
older, but an elder.
Subjects with stories
Like so many of Oxborough's paintings, what is
visible in the frame suggests what is not
visible outside it: The gilt-framed portraits
in soft focus in the background suggest what
the elder gentleman is looking at. He is
looking at fine portraits -- and has become a
fine portrait himself.
Oxborough says he often makes up stories about
the figures he paints -- their histories, their
relationships with other figures in the
painting. He says it helps him paint their
expressions, the way they hold themselves, if
he supposes aspects or and reasons for their
I wonder about the elder gentleman in the
painting. Maybe he is lonely, and has gone to
the museum to be in the company of others who
share his appreciation for beauty. Maybe, in
his winter years, he needs a museum's reminder
that humans can produce something ageless and
This is Oxborough's especial gift: To observe
such a moment. To preserve such a moment.
Within minutes, I form an attachment to this
gentleman -- this arrangement of paint on linen and panel. It
will take me a year to pay off my credit card for the
privilege, but I buy "At the Museum." I will
put the little painting in my study -- this
image of a man in the presence of art; this
image of a man exemplifying art at its finest.
Impressionist and modern art sale raises $140 million
May 11, 2000
Eleanor Ettinger Gallery
John Singer Sargent (Smithsonian magazine)
Rembrandt (WebMuseum, Paris)
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