Merging her own image with the likeness of historical women painters, Gabriela Gonzalez Dellosso pays homage to her heroines. Here’s how.
By Louise B. Hafesh
The timeless idiom “every picture tells a story” isn’t lost on artist Gabriela Gonzalez Dellosso. As early as 2008, passionate about bringing to light the life and works of chosen subjects, the New Jersey-based artist began experimenting with weaving her own likeness into the storylines of remarkable female painters. In the process, an amazing self-portrait series gave rise to a critically acclaimed 2016 solo exhibition entitled “Homage Paintings: Highlighting the Her” at the Butler Institute of American Art, in Youngstown, Ohio.
Dellosso had hit on a good thing. Excited to continue using her art to tell larger-than-life stories of great female artists, she began researching new subjects. “The women I portray are so compelling and interesting,” she explains. “Unique, focused, and driven, all are winners. They’re brave fighters who never let society dictate their art but, rather, persisted, excelled and became exceptional painters.”
Capturing the Essence
The same could be said of the artist herself, who has completed dozens of such homage paintings — no easy task. “The process is like a tug-of-war,” she says. “I find it difficult to do, but worth the effort in the end. My goal is to capture the essence of these women by incorporating elements of each one’s painting style into the particular self-portrait. Eventually, a likeness evolves in the layers.”
Even before addressing a likeness, though, finding a suitable image to work from is key. “Sometimes I won’t have an image from the angle or with the facial expression I want. I have to use my imagination to create the feeling of the artist,” notes Dellosso. By way of example, she sites her work on Genevieve Estelle Jones’s Dream (in the demo below), which highlights Jones’ crowning achievement, the book Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio (published 1879–1886).
“I only had a straight-on photo of Genevieve. For my painting she was to be asleep with her head leaning back against a tree,” says Dellosso. “I had to envision what her eyes would look like closed, which was a challenge.” In the end, Dellosso skillfully redesigned her own face to resemble that of her subject.
See Dellosso’s demo, Artist as Role-Player, below.
The Clothes Make the Women
Such painstaking attention to detail is a hallmark of the artist’s body of work. She can spend months recreating period garb, setting, and props. As such, her paintings seem almost theatrical. “I like drama,” Dellosso points out, stating further that dressing up, fantasy, and love of costume have been part of her life since convincing her mother to buy a replica of Snow White’s dress for the young Dellosso’s 7th birthday party. “I’d pleaded with my mother to buy it,” Dellosso recalls fondly. “I was always a bit of a dreamer. That desire to dress as Snow White was my first love affair with costume and narrative.”
From there, encouraged to pursue all things creative (she’s the daughter of a painter, granddaughter of a poet), and having painted from imagination since an early age, Dellosso moved on to making her own pillbox hats out of cardboard and velvet and, in college, cut a striking figure wearing full crinoline to classes. Along the way, setting the stage for her signature style, she amassed a unique collection of pointy shoes, antique clothing, and paraphernalia, all of which proved handy later when, as a student and monitor at the Art Student’s League of New York, she began dressing the models in costume.
It was a pivotal juncture for the up-and-coming artist. As Dellosso puts it, “I was also illustrating at the time, coincidentally getting historical work. I had to acquire additional vintage clothing for the characters in my assigned stories. That’s when it all came together, and my art began incorporating what I loved.”
What Dellosso loves is a good story. “I’m a very narrative thinker. On my mother’s side of the family there are many writers,” she says with pride. “I’ve tried doing commissions but struggle with them. I want to tell my own stories.” Fortuitously, a chance discovery of a painting by Adélaïde Labille-Guiard (1749–1803) gave her a way to do precisely that.
“The first time I saw Self-Portrait with Two Pupils at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I was struck by its power and beauty but shocked that I’d never heard of Labille-Guiard in art history class,” she remembers. “I kept thinking about it for days afterwards.” The history of the painting also struck a chord, as Dellosso would discover.
In a daring move, Labille-Guiard, a champion for promoting women artists and advocate for their inclusion in the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, had deliberately painted two of her accomplished students (Marie Gabrielle Capet and Marguerite Carreaux de Rosemund) into her masterpiece as a means of getting around the Academy’s archaic rule, which limited membership to four women, yet only allowed members to exhibit.
Making a Difference
“I was inspired by her gumption,” acknowledges Dellosso, who credits the prominent French painter and teacher with being the catalyst for her Homage series. “As one of the four women members, Labille-Guiard had petitioned the Academy to change the rules that kept other talented women out of the most important art exhibition of the era. Via her painting, her students had a presence in the show.”
Labille-Guiard’s use of her art to make a difference was a turning point in Dellosso’s own artistic journey. Moved to action and embracing the role of messenger, she began working on paintings that highlight other women painters who had likewise bucked the system. “I bring my contemporary self and blend my image with the images of these wonderful artists who deserve to be remembered,” says Dellosso. “The art and stories that I’ve discovered have been remarkable.”
One such story involved Labille-Guiard’s magnum opus, Reception of a Chevalier de Saint-Lazare by Monsieur, Grand Master of the Order, a prodigious, multiple-figure commission, which was seized and destroyed during the French Revolution. Says Dellosso, “I knew when I first read about its burning that I wanted to paint a large homage piece with figures close to life-size.” (Dellosso’s finished painting is 70×105 inches).
On a mission, she began the necessary research to create a historically accurate representation — even hired a seamstress to copy Labille-Guiard’s symbolic blue dress and replicate articles of clothing to represent the time period. All in all, her resulting painting, The Burning of Adélaïde Labille- Guiard’s Masterpiece, was a labor of love for Dellosso. “I wanted it to tell the tragic tale of the destruction of Adélaide’s incredibly ambitious painting. She had spent 30 months painting this huge work of art that could have given her the title of being a history painter.”
With time and discovery, Dellosso’s Homage series has evolved into an inspirational resource for the artist as well as a cause célébre for bringing attention to the often underrepresented accomplishments of women painters through the ages. “The more that people are informed, the more you see museums pulling these paintings out of storage units and giving historical women painters shows and a place in the history of art,” she says, affirming her core belief. “There’s a lifetime of stories to be told, and the more I learn, the more I’m in awe of these exceptional artists who defeated the odds of societal convention.”
Demo: Artist as Role-Player
1. Artist Reference Photo
The photo I had of Genevieve Estelle Jones was a full-face shot. This served as a reference for facial features and costume, but I would have to project from this image how a different head and body position would affect Jones’ appearance.
2. Concept Reference Photo
Beginning with a concept from my imagination, I staged a photo in which I’m posed sleeping with my head tilted back. This body and head position gave me the reference necessary to show Jones sleeping against a tree. Later, I decided I didn’t like the position of my hands, so I made a separate photo of them in a different position.
3. Blueprint Line Drawing
Looking at the photo of Jones’ face, I imagined how she would appear when reclining. I tried to incorporate her essence into my self-portrait as I developed a blueprint line drawing of the same size as my canvas. Changing my portrait to capture Genevieve was a trial-and-error process. I altered my hairstyle to resemble hers, and then drew this from a mirror.
To transfer the drawing to the canvas, I put large sheets of graphite paper on the back of my line drawing and placed the two sheets, graphite side down, over my canvas. I then drew over my blueprint lines; the graphite transferred those lines onto the canvas. I didn’t want the transferred drawing to be too tight, however, because the painting would develop and change as I went along.
4. Block In, Flesh Tones, and Facial Features
After creating an underpainting, I blocked in, usually using burnt umber mixed with burnt sienna. I started with the shadows and then moved on to the background. Once those were in place, I begin modeling the light, working in layers.
To block in the face, I mixed two fleshtones. The lighter, first fleshtone was Naples yellow, cadmium red light and titanium white. The second, darker fleshtone was yellow ochre, cadmium red light and titanium white.
I then looked for color differences in the portrait, specifically for warm and cool colors. (Good cool colors for mixing into my flesh tones are ultramarine blue, viridian and cadmium green light. Good warm colors for mixing into my flesh tones are cadmium orange and cadmium red light.) I developed the dimensionality of the features with the thought that cool colors recede and warm colors come forward, keeping in mind transitional turns between side and front planes. As I painted the eyes, nose, and mouth, I looked at Genevieve’s photo but also consulted my “feeling” of how she would look in this pose. This took time, but I continued until I was happy with the portrait.
5. Mood Established
I had to make sure the figure appeared as if it was in a certain atmosphere against the tree, so I incorporated and wove in the light and shadow that create the mood. Once the light and shadow were in place, I began adding the dream sequence of the nests around Genevieve’s head. These nests are replicas from Genevieve’s book, Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio.
6. Finishing Touches
I finished Genevieve Estelle Jones’s Dream (Self-Portrait) by polishing the details and the background landscape.
Learn more about Gabriela Gonzalez Dellosso and see more of her work at gabrieladellossoart.com.
A version of this article originally appeared in Artists Magazine.