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I am a painter. www.StephenCefalo.com, http://twitter.com/#!/CefaloStudio

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Interview With Carl Samson

Carl Samson is a great portrait painter and a man of virtue, not at all the stereotype of the socially inept artist. When I read about Rubens as both an accomplished painter and a gentleman I think of Carl. Although I've never studied with him I have learned so much from him as a friend that I almost count him a teacher. He loves history, loves Cincinnati, and always has a great idea up his sleeve. Carl paints in the beautiful historic home and studio of Herman and Bessie Wessel (students of Frank Duveneck), which also serves as a little Carl Samson museum. You may know of him through his involvement with the Portrait Society or his work in the new book Star Wars Art: Visions.

The Mirror
oil on linen

Are you from Cincinnati?
A) I’m from Sandusky, Ohio - born to french Canadian immigrants. But I’ve been in Cincinnati since 1986.

How did you discover the Boston school Method?
A) I met Allan Banks in Sandusky at age 14. He had just returned from studying with Richard Lack, who in the 1950s had studied with Ives Gammell in Boston. Gammell had been a pupil of primarily Paxton, but also Decamp, Tarbell and Benson.
Blue Church, Kolomna - Private Collection
21" x 16", Oil on Linen

How did you hear about Gammell, and how long did you study with him? How did it change you?
A) I first heard about him through Allan, of course, and soon after read his seminal 1941 book, The Twilight of Painting. I studied with Gammell for a year, at the end of his life. It changed me insofar as he transmitted a disciplined approach to learning how to see that was logical and very heavy on the fundamentals. He demaded 110% out of his students.

Nude and Pan
48" x 36", oil on linen

Did you do undergraduate/graduate studies somewhere?
A) For better or worse, I am the product of only atelier training; first with Allan, then Gammell and finally Richard Lack.

Have things changed in your opinion since the studio school phenomenon took off in cities across America?
A) They have indeed. In the last ten or even five years, the numbers of artists and students who are devoting themselves to a serious study of Nature has increased exponentially. Consequently, there are many more well trained painters nowadays. While we revel in this tremendous new surge, I strongly feel that we must not loose sight of how we’ve arrived at this point. That we had a tradition to uphold is due in large measure to those who kept it alive during very difficult times for representational painting.
Tuscan Ruins - Private Collection
17" x 20", Oil on Linen

What are the better programs in your opinion?
A) I think they all have something to offer. It is important as a student to choose one that resonates with one’s own inborn proclivities. There are fine schools in New York. Those largely seem to me to shun American Impressionist influences to go back further in history for their inspiration. This produces a certain kind of work. There are great Boston School based ateliers that seek to blend the best of the academic tradition with an impressionist sensibility. And there are others, particularly in Europe, that appear to me to be very strong in the direction of Annigoni - with an approach favoring line and very fine handling of form. All of these produce remarkable work that I believe is leading to a significant, broad based renaissance in fine representational painting.

Is there a plan in the near or distant future to do a Carl Samson school in Cincinnati?
A) Most definitely. Plans have been brewing for quite some time, and will be coming to a head in the next year or so.

Chianti Vineyards- Private Collection
32" x 39", Oil on Linen

How did you come across the Wessel studio?
A) I’m a big fan of searching out old artists studios. I came across a mention of Herman and Bessie Wessel’s old studio in an early 1900s Cincinnati Art Club membership roster. I went to see it and was smitten. As newlyweds, Carol and I moved into the old place in 1995, and have been there ever since.

42" x 36", oil on canvas

Congratulations on the recent award you won for the Triumph of Truth. It's an extraordinary piece. Is it part of a larger project or am I confusing it with something else?
A) Thank you! It is the firt shot across the bow of a series of seven works that look at the tension that exists between the real and the abstract; between those who seek to build on the great painting traitions of the past, and those who can’t get rid of them fast enough. It’s a “roots” kind of thing - a playful look at how we got to this point in art history.

The Triumph of Truth

How did you pull off the Minotaur? Surely you didn't have one as a still-life object.
It is a knockoff of an actual minotaur painted by Picasso - one that was lustily approaching a nude female. I simply flipped it upside down, adjusted his arm and a few other things, and voila!

Girl in Blue
oil on canvas

How did you get involved with the Star Wars book?
A) My online dealer, Richard Gandy of Gandy Gallery, called and informed me of the opportunity. I submitted several concepts to George Lucas, and he expressed a preference for the profile image of Natalie Portman as Queen Amidala. My wife Carol suggested the gold leaf, which I believe really carries the day. Mr. Lucas liked it enough to purchase it for his own private collection. The book, Star Wars Art: Visions officially hits book stores today, (Nov 1st).

Padme Resplendent with Naboo Mandala
24" x 20", oil with 22 and 23K gold leaf background on chestnut panel

What was your involvement with the portrait society?
A) I started as a distinguished guest of honor in 2000, demonstrating live at the Met in New York. This led to a position on the international advisory board, then finally to serving as its chairman for three years.

The Welcoming
oil on linen

Are there more allegorical biggies in the works?
A) I’m always planning the next big thing. I have more ideas than I have time these days. They will focus, in a broader sense, on more universal themes than my most recent series.
River Near Ashcroft, Colorado
16" x 20", Oil on Linen

Is there a guiding compositional principle that you follow?
A) It has dawned on me lately that I seem to be most attracted to the element of contrast in painting. Contrast of light and dark, interior and exterior, young and old, ancient and modern etc. This allows ample opportunity to experiment with spotting of masses and centers of interest in a large compositional field. I don’t claim to be always effective at it, but it sure is fun!


  1. Brilliant interview. It's so nice to see that the Boston School methods have made their way to Ohio.

  2. Fascinating art history lesson from Carl. It appears that Tom Wolfe's book, "The Painted Word" is about to make a renaissance in objective reality. Wolfe was always ahead of his time and his book should now see a serious re-read once the entire series of Carl's paintings see the light of day and they are unfurled for the public!
    This is your brother, Dan, very proud of younger brother and wishing you the best. I am extremely gratified that your first "Figure Painting" in the series has come out to some acclaim! The Main Canvass will definitely cause a stir in the Art Critics corner. Then it will be time to pull out Mr. Wolfe's book and suggest everyone re-read it and understand.