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Betty Herbert: Paintings in the Sun

Betty Herbert’s exuberant paintings of Provence and Tahiti conjure up welcome dreams of warmer climates. Inspired by Paul Gauguin and the artist’s own travels throughout the South of France, Herbert’s vibrant tropical forests and sun-washed hills exude a unique spontaneity and directness of expression. Primarily self-taught, Herbert uses thick, undulating brushstrokes and bold coloration to create deeply expressionistic works. While Herbert (American, b.1929) is most recently known for her expressive images of military conflicts, including the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Childs Gallery’s current exhibition presents a very different side of the artist’s work. For Herbert, the beautiful landscapes and flower paintings on view in Paintings in the Sun have offered her a temporary reprieve from the emotionally challenging subject of war. She explains, “Sometimes when you come out of war it is hard to paint something beautiful… When I would come out of the war paintings, I felt like I had been slugged.

I was so emotionally drained, I just felt like I couldn’t paint anymore”. On one such occasion, having just emerged from a particularly intense series of war paintings, Herbert asked her mentor, the noted artist Archie Rand, how she could ever begin to paint again. He answered simply, “Betty, just paint flowers. Do this until you feel strong enough to paint again”. In taking his advice, Herbert not only rediscovered tremendous joy in painting, but also produced an impressive body of work - her Paintings in the Sun.

This collection of landscapes and flower paintings draw inspiration from two distinct sources: Gauguin’s Tahitian paintings and

woodcuts, as well as Herbert’s own experiences traveling throughout the South of France. Herbert’s Tahitian paintings depict a tropical paradise bursting with colorful fruit, flowers, and exotic Polynesian figures. These works draw upon Gauguin’s paintings and woodcuts of the region; “I have admired Gauguin since I started painting... since before I started painting. His colors are absolutely magical, they are breathtaking.” Particularly influential is Gauguin’s massive symbolist painting Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1897-98), at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Herbert describes this painting as “So moving. It takes your breath away when you walk into the room.” A number of Herbert’s paintings also incorporate imagery from Gauguin’s black and white woodcuts, using vibrant colors and expressive brushwork to give new life to his forms. Also on view is a selection of Herbert’s paintings depicting the rolling, sun-washed hillsides of Provence. These exuberant landscapes combine rich, experimental color and lush painterly technique to create visceral recollections of the French countryside. Herbert has travelled extensively throughout France, and several of these works were painted on site, directly from nature. Herbert describes the immediacy of this process as “one of the finest ways to paint… to just put it all down, making decisions in the moment, and then don’t touch it! Just paint and trust your decisions in the moment.” Herbert, a graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts (1951), did not begin her vocation as an artist until much later in life.

It was the pain of her husband becoming

seriously ill that led Herbert to first pick up a paintbrush in 1983 at the age of 54, with the hope that it might give her life a renewed sense of purpose. A local teacher showed her how to work with oils, and then she feverishly began to paint alone at home. Encouraged by the results, Herbert went on to receive formal training at the Vermont Studio School and received a fellowship at the Dorland Mountain Arts Colony. Herbert fondly recalls how Archie Rand, one of her teachers, instructed her to paint as she wished, and not as others would wish her to paint. Herbert’s final critique at the Vermont Studio School was a simple sentence: "Just keep on painting.” Her instructors feared academic training might discourage Herbert's spontaneity, raw emotion, and expressive coloration unfettered by the constraints of conventional perspective and representation. The work of Betty Herbert has been featured in exhibitions at the Historial de la Grande Guerre, France’s World War I museum; the Cannon Rotunda, Capitol Hill, Washington, DC; The Contemporary Art Center of Virginia, Virginia Beach, VA; the Air Force Museum in Dayton, OH; the Allan Stone Gallery, New York, NY; and the Portsmouth Art Museums, Portsmouth, VA.

Her works can be found in the collections of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum at Colonial Williamsburg, and the Historial de la Grande Guerre, Pèronne, France. A selection of Herbert’s Paintings in the Sun will be on view at Childs Gallery from February 17 to March 29, 2014.