When I look at Ellen Eagle’s work I am reminded of my earliest interest in portraits. I was a boy, looking at reproductions of old masters’ paintings in my parents’ attic, moved by something immediately present about them but other world at the same time. Eagle’s works are like that. They are very specific to the individual sitter’s character and momentary presence, but larger yet— universal and timeless.
The famous teacher, Robert Henri once wrote: “There are moments in our lives, there are moments in a day, when we seem to see beyond the usual- become clairvoyant. We reach then into reality. Such are the moments of our greatest happiness. Such are the moments of our greatest wisdom. It is in the nature of all people to have these experiences; but in our time and under the conditions of our lives, it is only a rare few who are able to continue in the experience and find expression for it.” The Art Spirit
Eagle’s portraits are very different from Henri’s, but ironically they are the quintessence of that statement. They are so utterly real, so painfully everyday, and yet they are bathed in an ambient light that suggests her subjects are somehow blessed by an unseen presence.
I am drawn back to Eagle’s paintings whenever I grow tired of the affectations of so many contemporary portraitists. I am at first restored or refreshed by the honesty of her portrayals. Then as I study them more closely I find that little firings are going off in my brain that I can only describe as an experience of being repeatedly stunned by what she has accomplished within that quiet, unassuming presentation. Each small section is a new surprise with its own impact, yet each is perfectly integrated, so that a viewer can comfortably explore the face or figure without feeling lost or disconnected from the whole. Who would guess that there could be such subtly interwoven passages in the depiction of a single figure?
The people in her works, as well as her technique, are unashamedly earthy and plain but painted with the sensitivity and intricacy of a Chopin sonata. This intrinsic contrast is the basis of her power: contrast between that which is weighty and elemental, and that which is sensitive and refined; contrast between deeply felt emotion, even passion, and the restraint of discipline and thoughtfulness; contrast between the simplicity of a single figure and the complex arrangement of subtle movements within the figure and within the light and space that surrounds it. These contrasts fittingly engender both a sense of serenity and of being very much alive.
If you are put off by the homeliness of everyday life, you may not like her work. But if you are not, Eagle’s paintings will lead you to an even greater belief, than you may already have, in the survival of the human spirit. Her work gives us faith in that. Some of us, at various points in our lives, have questioned our ability to survive with our authentic vision intact. Eagle’s paintings suggest that she too has struggled, possibly stumbling and doubting herself now and then, but that she has tenaciously returned to that steady gaze at life as it is—-in all its quiet glory. Her works give the impression that they were made by an artist with heart, stubbornness, and conviction.
If any of you have seen her paintings and not had this feeling, I suggest that you visit them again sometime when you have a quieter mind. They require patience and receptivity. Eagle’s vision will not leap out at you. It is too dignified and worldly wise to demand your attention. It is not advertisement for the artist but rather an intimate conversation with a close friend. If you take the time to study her portraits you discover that you are in a privileged space, talking about the deepest experiences of your life, or hers or that of the subject of the portrait.
The Canadian author, Margaret Laurence was once quoted as saying that she wrote about what everyone knew but never thought to write about. In a similar way Ellen Eagle paints what we all see and typically disregard as insignificant. Tactfully and unobtrusively she slips around the shields that her sitters wear to protect them from the world and paints them in the safety of her world. By allowing us to see them in this way, in their least guarded moments, she confirms for us that what is genuine is ultimately the most beautiful.