Thursday, March 13, 2014

The First Painting I Ever Saw

My parents had a print of a European harbor scene that occupied a place of honor in my boyhood home. It hung over our wooden record cabinet, or “hi-fi” as we called it. 

Although I remember gazing dreamily at the magical world it opened into, I have no idea who painted the original. As closely as I can recall, it looked something like this:

Maybe it was Dutch. All I know is that it had boats with sails, a mist-veiled coast, and a big blowzy sky.

Other than that print and the intriguing stained glass windows in Christ Church, Oyster Bay, Long Island, the only other art I saw as a young child was the ceiling mural of the Oyster BayPost Office.

This was really something special. It was, clearly, a real painting (a fresco, actually). It was a work of elegance and imagination. It was really a magical world. And it was on the ceiling!

Arthur Sturges's ceiling mural in the U.S. Post Office, Oyster Bay, Long Island

Funded by the depression government’s Works Project Administration program, “the vaulted ceiling was painted by Peixotto assistant, Arthur Sturges and depicts beautiful women representing different countries sending mail to North America on ships and planes. Mercury, the winged messenger, sits atop the dome to receive the mail with speed.” (Thank you WikiPedia!)
A ceiling that showed the sky! And even gods and goddesses inhabiting what appeared to be Heaven! But these celestial beings were doing things with little ships and planes -  implying that whatever was going on up there had something to do with the modern world we were standing in down here!

Art, then, was a sort of portal to another world that reflected back something about this one. I can still dimly recall the visit on which a grownup (either my mother or my grandmother) first pointed up at it. And now I’m painting skies myself.

New Sky, Oil on Wood, 18"x18," 2011

Plum Island Dusk, Oil on Canvas, 8" x 10," 2010

Plum Island Redux, Oil on Wood, 24" x  36," 2011

One of the secrets of painting effective skies, I think, is to watch what you're doing at the horizon. Blending the lowest, most distant clouds into wisps and streaks of light and color helps provide the sense of receding space. You get the feeling that the clouds highest in the picture are closest, while those furthest away gradually recede along the curvature - the "vaulted ceiling" - of the heavens.


At the same post office, there’s an impressive ornamental flagpole base outside with an amusing story that goes with it (see “The Man in the Shed”). At the same time that the murals were done, the WPA sent a little-known immigrant from Bologna, Italy, named Leo Lentelli to produce a series of sculptures here. 

The story goes that once his chunk of granite had been put in place, Leo built a little shed around it. There he worked, shielding himself from the winter winds that rip through my old coastal hometown in the winter. Thanks Leo - you rule.


  1. The first painting show typical Dutch ships, named cogs (platbodems) trading with a German town. I think the painter had the Hanseatic League (1356-1450) in mind. The painting could be somewhat Italicized or romanticized, but that has its charm. The Hanseatic League reached all the way to Cologne in Germany. Cologne is located on both sides of the Rhine River. The defence castle looks a bit too impressive. I do remember them as big, but not that big.

    If you like to do some research I suggest you google old prints and paintings of old German Hanseatic League towns. Compare the towers.

    1. Thanks Mindful! I've got a line on an old snapshot that might show the painting - IF I can lay my hands on it.

    2. Christopher, I would like to learn which town it is. Please let me know.
      Kind greetings from Paula

    3. Hi Mindful -You're on your own on this one. I selected this painting pretty much at random just to illustrate the general feel and subject matter of the print- the specifics of which, to be totally honest, I don't remember very clearly - the actual painting my parents had probably looked nothing like this one! And I don't really have the time to track down the town in this one... Good luck! Feel free to post your findings!

  2. The WPA was a great boon to artists then. They funded a lot of puppetry, too--work for young audiences as well as serious work for adult audiences.