Stowe artist Carroll Jones Jr., who will turn 90 in January, says that if he had it to do over, he would have "gone right into portraits." And no wonder: The realist painter has an almost supernatural ability to capture not only the form but the spiritual essence of his subjects. Even if that subject is a horse, a sheep or a rooster.
Then again, Jones doesn't seem to have any regrets about the twists and turns of his lengthy career - a retrospective of which is currently on view at The Art Gallery in Stowe, owned by his longtime friend Lillian Zuber. For visitors, the diversity of the exhibit is thoroughly engaging; what's not to like about a book filled with meticulous "how-to" illustrations for surgical amputations? Jones did that, in 1949, for a doctor he met during World War II. Representing his mid-20th-century years as a commercial artist in New York are numerous paintings for Old Crow whiskey advertising campaigns, Agatha Christie book jackets, magazine features and more.
Among the body of work Jones created for Life magazine are detailed - and heavily researched - pre-civilization vignettes for an "Epic of Man" series. "I studied all this stuff in Syria and Lebanon," he notes. "And I went to the basement of the Louvre to study things made 500 years before Christ." He even created his own costumes.
Jones may have resorted to the imagination for his scenes of the Russian Revolution, also for Life; who can say for sure what that looked like? But quality trumps literalness in the richly painted "Winter Palace" - a work once owned by publishing magnate Malcolm Forbes. (Zuber bought it back from Forbes' estate for $15,000; prints of the piece go for two grand.) The painting recalls Rembrandt's "Night Watch"; the precision of the opulent crystal chandeliers is stunning, the soft light is golden, the shadows cast by the invading Bolsheviks deep and velvety.
There's a reason for the glow of Jones' illumination: He uses the very old-school medium of egg tempera, and his pigments have a luster that is virtually impossible to obtain without it. Affable and kindly, Jones patiently explains to a visitor how the organic concoction is made - "It can get a little smelly," he concedes.
As he clearly details how he prepares his canvas, creates a composition and then the multiple layers of a painting, Jones displays another of his talents: teaching. Years ago, after graduating from the Yale School of Fine Arts, he maintained a small art school of his own in New Jersey, and he's produced three instructional videos for artists, including one called "Echoes of the Renaissance." Dozens of now-successful artists claim Jones as a mentor and inspiration. And 34 years after he moved to Vermont, he still hosts an informal "get-together" every Wednesday for a small group of fellow painters.
One of them is Carol Bonyun. "He's a wonderful teacher," enthuses the Stowe artist, whose own fine colored-pencil portrait of Jones is prominently displayed at his retrospective. "My 'normal' art is horses and dogs," Bonyun explains. "Carroll, loving horses as I do, has been a great help to me." Jones has passed on the craft of "the egg tempera thing" to the group, Bonyun notes, but "not all of us have the patience for it - it's time-consuming," she says. "Carroll tells me that when I'm 90, I'll have the patience."
Betsy Bourdon of Wolcott studied with Jones before his successful battle with prostate cancer in the late '80s, and what he calls "my two ostomies." About a decade ago, Bonyun recalls, he invited her to the studio; she's been part of the Wednesday group ever since. She says, "I consider him a mentor." Bourdon subsequently began to show and sell her own realist works. "He just encourages you to keep going and try things.
"I have a treasure Carroll did for me," Bourdon continues, "a drawing of my late husband. If there was a fire, that's what I'd save. He captured an essential quality about my husband. And I've seen him do this over and over again - he can sort of plumb the psyches of people."
That "essential quality," and the lit-from-within glow, can be seen in the figurative paintings that dominate Jones' retrospective, even in the obviously contemporary painting of three seated ballerinas, one of whom is examining her right foot while the other two look on. It's a seemingly prosaic pose, but something about the subtle relationship among the three dancers is visually compelling. Compliment Jones on this achievement and he simply murmurs a modest "thank you."
One of his loveliest single portraits is "Alicia," Lillian Zuber's daughter - and Jones' goddaughter - painted when she was 2 years old (she's now 41). The little girl with a blond pageboy is seated on a rock wall; a stand of trees disappears into mist behind her. Alicia's soft blue dress and adjacent flowers match the luminous hue of her eyes. Her gaze is intent - on a blue-and-black butterfly fluttering in front of her. Understandably, Zuber likes to point out this painting to visitors, explaining that it was once "a signature portrait at Portraits Incorporated in New York." Jones was among the artists commissioned by the company, founded in 1942, which "preserves the memories" of prominent individuals and families.
One famous politician's mug is not on display at The Art Gallery - because it's in the Vermont Statehouse: the official portrait of Howard Dean, completed in 2002 before the outgoing governor turned into a presidential contender. The painting made headlines - and evoked the nickname "L.L. Dean" - because it depicted the outdoorsy guv, canoe paddle in hand, perched on a rock by the shore of Lake Champlain. This break with tradition was Dean's idea, says Jones, who confides that he would have preferred a more "classic portrait."
Nevertheless, Jones managed to make the governor look both dignified and relaxed - no small feat. And, of course, he's bathed in light. "That was what caught my eye, the light," Jones remembers of early childhood visits to art galleries. "My aunt and uncle took me to the Metropolitan Museum to look at the [classical] paintings, and I just about flipped. How did they get that light, and three dimensions on a flat surface? I just had to do it."
More than eight decades later, Jones is still doing it. "I make art every day," he says. That is, when he's not riding the lawnmower or playing golf. In the new millennium, apparently, this is what old masters do.
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