Bernadette Soubirous of Lourdes, a 14 year-old peasant
girl, saw visions of a lovely lady in a grotto by a river in remote
France in 1858. Despite public skepticism, Bernadette held stubbornly
to her belief that her lady was real. The Catholic church, after
a lengthy investigation, accepted her visions as genuine. Bernadette
later joined a convent in Nevers, France, died there, and was finally
canonized in 1933 by Pope Pius XI.
I first learned of the story from the movie "The Song
of Bernadette" starring Jennifer Jones. I wanted to make a painting
of my concept of Bernadette.
I see bernadette as a miserable, sickly child who
lived an extremely difficult and painful life. Perhaps she wanted
a way out of it and saw someone who existed only for her and no
one else. Her certainty and stubborn persistance was so compelling
that she convinced a nation to believe in her visions without really
||For my painting, I needed a model for Bernadette
herself. Here is a Photo of the actual person, taken a number
of years after her visions stopped. I did not use her real face
because I wanted something more expressive.
I also did not want to copy the movie by using Jennifer
Jones. Frankly, I felt that she was too pretty.
I wanted a mixture of homeliness and innocent beauty,
and when I found and snapped a picture of a girl that seemed close
to what I imagined, I started doing sketches of her as bernadette.
I then hired a model who resembled the original bernadette
from one of my art groups, posed her as my main character, photographed
her ( digital of course ) and did more drawings, combining her face
with my earlier drawings.
She was close, but not quite. I wanted her to be a
little prettier so I found an actress in a DVD movie which I snapped
still frames from and then mixed her into my character and finally
found my Bernadette.
For the setting I decided to have a rock wall behind
the girl, but I wanted it to represent the background pain and torments
of her life (and ours), so it would be filled with hidden and not
so hidden figures depicting suffering. One of my inspirations was
August Rodins "Gates of Hell" which shows a complex tapestry of
tormented figures. The centerpiece for the gates of hell was a man
sitting, resting his head on his hand, lost in agonized contemplation.
Later, the figure, as a separate statue, became Rodins most famous
work, "The Thinker".
The back wall of the grotto, consisting of mossy,
wet stone, was to be shaped like part of a skull. I have a small
sculpure of a human skull which I photographed and combined with
another photo of a huge boulder on the beach at Hammonasset. This
gave me a starting point for the texture of the grotto wall behind
I used a technique called informal subdivision to
compose my picture. It consists of dividing the canvas into irregular
rectangles and then drawing diagonals, which then serve to define
smaller rectangles. You then place your centers of interest either
on places where several diagonals cross, or along major diagonals.
I started with my skull background and my main character, then drew
enough subdivisions to provide an interesting network of "hot spots".
Now I needed my "Gates of Hell" figures. I collected
a number of rather disturbing and horrific images from various sources
and used Photoshop to fit them into my rock-skull background. I
positioned them, rotated, and scaled them to fit into the composition
and line up with the various diagonals and other guides.
I used layers to balance out the values and printed
a master image, then projected that to a sheet of tracing paper,
then transferred the cartoon to a primed panel. From then on I worked
in oils from my printed reference pictures.
Here is the finished painting.
Do you recall how I invented my Bernadette character
from a conglomeration of images, models and imagination? When I
brought the finished painting to my friend Peggy Mock who owns a
framing shop, her first comment was "Hey that looks like Samantha."
I said "Samantha? You mean there is someone who looks like this?"
Peg told me that Samantha was the daughter of one of her customers.
I happened to be working at the frame shop the next weekend when
Peg called me to the front of the store and there was a girl who
looked more like my fictional made-up character than I believed
possible. I had my digital camera with me and I asked her to sit
and look up as if she was seeing the most beautiful thing she had
ever seen and took her picture.
She was absolutely perfect. If I had known she existed,
I could have saved myself a lot of effort.