Based on three literary sources, The Mistress and Her Donkey was created while I was on a six week residency at the MacNamara Foundation on Westport Island, Maine. The initial impetus for the piece was a group show on work related to the plays of Shakespeare, but as I worked on it other stories wove their way into the piece. Paul, the studio assistant in Maine, dropped a poem by Rumi on my work desk, and I immediately began adding objects to the painting that connected it to that unusual (for Rumi) and erotic story. Toward the end of work on the painting I found The Golden Ass (The Metamorphosis of Apuleius) in a used bookstore, and added the wreath of roses.
There is also the rumor/story of Catherine the Great.
The so-called “horse story”. One eminent historian explained how such a preposterous story could have started: apparently the anti-monarchy forces in France circulated such rubbish soon after Catherine’s death throughout Europe with the intention of discrediting her many achievements.
Catherine had become the enemy of France after she had voiced sharply her outrage when word had reached St. Petersburg that the king and queen had been executed. She ordered the court to declare 6 weeks of mourning on Oct. 27, 1793. This proclamation was in memory of Marie Antoinette, who had been killed a few months after her husband, King Louis XVI. She denounced these evil forces very vocally. She also welcomed many French refugees to St. Petersburg. Each of them had to swear allegiance to the Imperial Crown of Russia. She was very anxious not to transport the seeds of revolution to her own country.
Catherine had relationships with several guardsmen younger than herself, but she was neither vulgar nor licentious. She was a lady of high intellect, a tireless worker for the good of Russia, and above all, she was human and she was kind. She was a legend in her own time. I have been familiar with her story for many years. Her behavior throughout her exceptional life was at all times understandable. No other ruler had her many fine qualities.
It is regrettable that some people seem to take pleasure in vulgarity, but thankfully they are small in number. They do not belong in the category of the many who have a sincere desire to learn the true facts of history. Once only, but for all times, I would like to make it clear that Catherine suffered a stroke at the age of 67, inside her water closet. She was discovered by her maid, lying on the carpet against her commode. The door had prevented her from stretching out her legs. Her eyes were closed, her face congested. There was foam on her lips and a rattle in her throat. Others rushed in when they heard the cries of her maid. They combined their many efforts to lift her heavy body, but staggered. They pulled a leather mattress from a sofa to the floor. There she stayed while doctors tried to bleed her. But they knew it was the end. She died several hours later without regaining consciousness, stretched out by now in her canopied bed.
Interesting that the horse story has persisted all these years. It is the vulgarity of it that sticks, as that sounds so much more titillating than dying of a stroke at 67.
Even though the subject matter is so front and center, this painting was more of a formal influence for me. It was in the ‘California New Old Masters’ show we were in together that Donald Kuspit curated and was on the same wall as a movie theater painting of mine. While this kind of luminosity doesn’t work for the light in a movie theater, I really admires the overall glow of this painting. Who owns it now? It would be great to see again in person. I would love to see a lot of the paintings on here in person, an ‘Open Museum’ show, maybe.. usually the stuff on the web comes after a show, maybe we could pitch it to a brick and mortar museum.
The painting is in a California private collection. Luminosity is very important to me, and I learned it the hard way. Some of my early work is built up in pretty stupid ways, killing the ability of light to penetrate the color layers and bounce off an underlying light surface. Once I’d learned the 17th century Dutch technique (I posted info on it in the facets of On the Roof, Hours of the Day Collection) I really felt I understood how color and pigment work, technically. I want my paintings to glow, have an inner light, and you don’t get that without understanding how light brings color to the eye.
As for the Open Museum show; Mikel Glass had also mentioned that a while ago, but we had too few artists. We might have enough now…
Scott, I am enjoying this painting very much, as well as all of the stories that you told to accompany it. Can’t imagine it without the wreath of roses — so perfect an addition. . .
Yeah, Terry, I agree. Once you’ve seen the roses, and then imagine them out, the painting feels kind of empty. All that straw would be too overwhelming.
I’ve been up to the Gerome show twice, and will see it at least one more time. I just heard a great talk at Swihart’s Salon last Saturday night; old friend and Gerome expert Jerry Ackerman just talked about his favorite aspects of the paintings he loves. A wonderful hour. The show will go to the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, and be twice as big! Got to catch it at both venues…
I really love this painting, Scott! Every aspect of it – I think is is one of the more complex, layered works you’ve created.
Thanks, Grady. All my work seems to be pretty thickly layered. This one has these identifiable literary sources, that all go surprisingly well together. Well, they all have themes of women sleeping with donkeys. I should have set the action in Tijuana!
The Mistress and Her Donkey
F. Scott Hess (b. 1955)
The Mistress and Her Donkey
oil on canvas
40 × 40 inches