Great paintings invite us to re-examine our social customs and mores, and just such a painting is currently on exhibit at DeBruyne Fine Art in Naples. Titled Grace Beyond Circumstance, it is part of the latest edition of the Homage to the Creative Spirit series by photorealist Jenness Cortez. But Grace Beyond Circumstance is more than a tribute to Norman Rockwell's iconic 1951 Saturday Evening Post cover, Saying Grace. Rather, it is a memorial to two vanishing American traditions.
"I've always been fond of this particular Rockwell painting," Cortez says of what surveys show is Rockwell's best known piece. "The concepts of saying grace and accepting grace are important to me."
Yet according to Robert Putnam and Harvard political science professor David Campbell in their recent tome American Grace: How Religion Unites and Divides Us, only 44 percent of Americans report saying grace or a similar blessing these days before eating each day. The other 46 almost never give thanks before a meal, unless that repast falls on Thanksgiving, Christmas or Easter Sunday.
And one might conclude that this disparity in the multi-denominational, cross-cultural practice explains the looks of the faces on the other diners in the Rockwell picture. Today, critics and viewers speculate that the two young men sharing their table with the prayerful diners are disdainful, while the hardened middle-aged man standing to the side is outright scornful of the public affirmation of gratitude to some unseen deity. But while their faces indeed express curiosity and even bemusement, there's not a hint of mockery or contempt. According to reviewer David Kamp, Saying Grace is to be "celebrated as an affecting snapshot of Americans at their best: jumbled together, disparate of background, yet coexisting peacefully."
Which is precisely what Rockwell, a non-churchgoer, intended as the takeaway from Saying Grace. In his view, the painting was not about the woman and boy, but about the reaction they engendered. “The people around them were staring, some surprised, some puzzled, some remembering their own lost childhood, but all respectful,” the artist wrote in his memoir, the italics his.
And sadly, the aspect of benign tolerance in a pluralistic society is another practice fast disappearing from American culture, which is becoming more polarized both politically and culturally on a broad spectrum of topics from gun rights to immigration to views on abortion and women's health.
But whether you pray before meals or find yourself growing increasingly impatient with those who possess differing views, Grace Beyond Circumstance compels, nay demands, a reconsideration of the role that grace should play in our daily lives. It is not happenstance that the titles on the bookshelves framing Saying Grace include The Good Earth, The Sun Also Rises, East of Eden, Pride & Prejudice and Little Women, not to mention biographies of Washington and Lincoln, as well as books on Gettysburg, the Civil War and Rockwell's America.
"The book titles reflect lives of grace or a reverent relationship with the rest of life," Cortez explains. Which confirms Executive Director of the Palos Verdes Art Center Robert Yassin's opinion of Jenness Cortez as one of the world’s most eloquent and successful visual conversationalists producing art today.
“All art is a dialogue, a conversation through the medium of the artwork between the artist and the viewer,” Yassin postulates. “Among the many characteristics of a real work of art, two are most significant and define both the quality and significance of the dialogue. The first is that what the artist is saying must be meaningful; the second, that it is clearly communicated and understood. In Cortez’ paintings, both criteria are more than fully met. The work talks to us at many levels and creates in us a sense of both understanding and well being. This happens because there is nothing arbitrary in Cortez’ paintings. The choice of the painting reproduced, the elements surrounding it, the space the elements occupy, the lighting, the color, everything is carefully selected and orchestrated following a fully articulated plan determined by the artist . . . The paintings of Jenness Cortez make my heart sing.”
But Grace Beyond Circumstance does more than speak to us in a clear, meaningful way. It raises the already very high bar that Cortez has set in her past paintings. Not only is its message excruciatingly more intense, not only are the objects she's chosen to surround her iconic Rockwell work more poignant, but she's chosen an almost incomprehensible color palette beyond the brush of mere mortal painters.
"In this painting, I deliberately set about trying things that tested my skills more. Portraying red objects against a red background forced me to work with many different pigments and dyes in order to effect warm and cool, transparent and opaque color." Nor was it by any means simple to properly render the surfaces of the crystal, silver and linen fabric set atop the polished tabletop shimmering in the off-frame artificial light.
"The chairs were especially challenging," Cortez points out. She chose the backs not only because of their Rockwell-period Gothic look, but because the cane backs serve as an unobtrusive bridge between the elegant table settings in the foreground and the humble meal about to be consumed in the smoky diner in the Rockwell painting.
Grace Beyond Circumstance alone merits a trip to DeBruyne Fine Art, but the opportunity to view an entire collection of similarly-constructed, incredibly wrought master works demands that you drop everything and make the pilgrimage while the entire Homage to the Creative Spirit exhibition remains hung in a single exhibition room.