Saturday, January 23, 2010

My Favorite Painting by an Unknown Artist

I fell in love with this oil painting the minute I saw it hanging on the wall of a couple of friends in Cambridge. This (above) is a snapshot I took with my camera, that I keep pinned to the wall near my computer. The flash washed it out a little, but you can see it pretty well.

My friend Caroline found this painting some years ago hanging in a crowded antique shop in Vermont. She asked about it and managed to buy it for a reasonable sum. (She didn’t say how much.)

Turns out this is not really the work of an unknown artist—the painting is named “Last Respects” and dated 1984 and is signed by Eugene A. Fern, who was, according to his obituary, “a writer and illustrator of children’s books.” But as far as I can tell, he’s not a listed artist nor did he ever acquire fame or fortune from his paintings. He is best known for his children’s book “Pepito’s Way.”

Here’s his New York Times obituary in its entirety, dated Sept. 11, 1987.

“Eugene A. Fern, a writer and illustrator of children’s books, died Sunday, apparently of a heart attack, at his home in East Hardwick, Vt. He was 67 years old.

“A professor of art at New York City Community College, now New York City Technical College, for 29 years, Mr. Fern retired to Vermont in 1975.

“Over many years, he wrote and illustrated a number of children’s books, including “Pepito’s Story,” “What’s He Been Up To Now?” and “The King Who Was Too Busy.”

He is survived by his wife, Claire; a son, Arnold, of Manhattan; a daughter, Marcia Boston of Cambridge, Mass., and a granddaughter.”

As I said, I fell in love with the painting at first sight and I didn’t need to know anything about the artist, because it was all there on the canvas. In my mind this was clearly a painted autobiography of a man who had been a fair-haired little boy, a dark-haired teen, a soldier, a groom in a tuxedo, who grew a beard and lost his hair in his later years.

The ghosts of his former selves, transparent and each wearing a golden halo, are clustered around an open coffin that allows us a small glimpse of a white-bearded corpse of a man—the only full-color flesh-and-blood person in the painting of eight individuals.

But the ghosts of the old man’s departed selves are not looking at the corpse; they’re looking at us, the viewer. Perhaps their intense regard is meant to tell us what often was written on tombstones: “As I am now so will you be.”

I find this painting moving and brilliantly composed and painted.

I know that this will cause truly hip and knowledgeable art experts to curl their lip in scorn, because I am aware that realistic and figurative art is not “in” at the moment. Reading reviews of a recent Venice Biennale, I got the feeling that there was not a single painting in it, abstract or not. From what I read, everything seemed to be a video tape or a light show or an assemblage or an installation or a pile of found objects on the floor.

But I’m pretty old-fashioned, and when I went back to painting at the age of 60, I started with flowers and landscapes and stuff, painting en plein air in the hot sun of Greece, but pretty soon I discovered that a painting that has no human figure or face in it tends to bore me. So now I concentrate pretty much on genre, portraits, and figure drawing. All very out of style, but I keep watching and hoping for a return to representational art.

I like to share from time to time my favorite paintings by other artists and I particularly wanted to share this one, because I feel it must have been Fern’s masterpiece and his memoir. He painted it in 1984 when he was sixty-four and he died three years later. He died young, but he evidently saw his death coming and it inspired him to painting this “Last Respects” as a summary of his life and a warning to us.


MelodyTheArtist said...


Glad I came across this, thank you for sharing it. The painting warrants a long look and is quite poignant. Interesting that the artist died so shortly after.

Caroline said...


Your reaction to the painting echoes mine. I've lived with it and around it for a decade now... Not a day passes without a pause in front of the painting and some reflection. Thank you for appreciating it so.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful painting. Mr. Fern was my art teacher at the New York City Community College 1965/6. I remember him a chain smoking coffee drinker who didn't think much of my artistic aptitude. The second figure from the right is an exact likeness of how I remember him. An excellent teacher who treated everyone well.

marcia said...

Eugene Fern was my father. I know that painting well and would love to see it sometime as would my children. he was a chain smoker, an idealist and a true cynic. This painting was one of many. He painted some beautiful landscapes of Vermont where he was living when he died.

Robin S said...

Well I guess he was "relatively" unknown, or more known to us relatives. Eugene was a cousin, and my mother and father, and now I have two of his charcoals, one of crowded streets and one of probably Central Park, both in New York. I'm glad to see cousin Marcia found this site last year too! Thank you for the post. -Robin Schectman