Reader’s Choice: Pure Joy and Character


In this ongoing series, Fine Art Today delves into the world of portraiture, highlighting historical and contemporary examples of superb quality and skill. This week we detail a visage that will undoubtedly leave you smiling.

If everyone could be as happy as Mary Pettis’ “Russian Fisherwoman” all the time, the world would be a much better place. With Pettis’ careful yet expressive touch, this week’s feature portrait radiates pure joy and character. Tightly cropped and captured in full length, a hearty and hefty woman sits on a bench in front of her merchandise while enjoying a cigarette. As she casually leans toward the viewer, Pettis has captured her visage in a snapshot instant. Warmth and happiness emanate from her face, her eyes piercing and her cheeks flushed. I like to believe she’s been caught in the midst of retelling a fantastic story or local joke, a welcoming proposition that gives the piece intimacy and familiarity.

It was 2009, and Pettis — along with a group of several other artists — was traveling through rural Russia. Although it was bitter cold and deep within the Siberian winter, routine continued with fervor in a small fish market. “I first saw her from the window of our bus traveling along the outskirts of a little Russian village,” Pettis recalls. “We hadn’t planning on stopping at the makeshift fish market, but several of us called out at once, ‘Stop the bus!’” There must have been something special about the market that spoke to this group of creatives, perhaps a strong sense of local, untouched culture, the Siberian natives, or perhaps the flashes and ribbons of color in an otherwise bleak season.

Pettis says, “I was struck immediately by her large, homespun happy aura (I’m thinking that a good day fishing may be akin to a good day painting!). I loved the raw contrasts — the incongruities: the bright red shirt under camouflage, her unabashed joy amid the February bleakness. I felt her powerful presence would be best expressed with a close, pyramidal composition, heavy textures, and lively, unedited alla prima brushwork. To this day, I can’t help but smile when I look at this painting of her.”

Indeed, Pettis achieved her goal with such success that reactions from viewers are largely the same. It’s hard not to feel the subject’s sense of satisfaction, joy, leisure, character, and warmth — perhaps the ultimate indicator of a superb portrait.

To learn more, visit Mary Pettis.

This article was featured in Fine Art Today, a weekly e-newsletter from Fine Art Connoisseur magazine. To start receiving Fine Art Today for free, click here.

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Andrew Webster is the former Editor of Fine Art Today and worked as an editorial and creative marketing assistant for Streamline Publishing. Andrew graduated from The University of North Carolina at Asheville with a B.A. in Art History and Ceramics. He then moved on to the University of Oregon, where he completed an M.A. in Art History. Studying under scholar Kathleen Nicholson, he completed a thesis project that investigated the peculiar practice of embedded self-portraiture within Christian imagery during the 15th and early 16th centuries in Italy.


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