Editor's note: The Kalamazoo Institute of Arts provided permission for Resource Library to publish the following essay included in the exhibition brochure for Eternal Beauty: Egg Tempera Paintings by Fred Wessel, being presented at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts June 25 - October 2, 2016. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay and associated materials, please contact the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts directly through either this phone number or web address:


Eternal Beauty: Egg Tempera Paintings by Fred Wessel

by Katherine T. Brown


This spectacular assembly of recent paintings by Fred Wessel principally features young women on the brink of maturity yet who linger willingly and leisurely in states of innocence. They are depicted in harmony with -- if not the fruits of -- the nexus of terrestrial and celestial spheres. A master of both iconography and technique, Wessel combines portraiture with still life against a foil of astronomical maps in homage to the Renaissance paintings that he has assiduously observed. The models' anonymity encourages viewers to contemplate universal themes rather than to dwell on comparing likenesses with specific sitters. Yet, in their familiarity, we can glimpse the quintessence of youth. In line with the paradox of capturing the infinite within a grain of sand or drop of rain, so too can we witness an interminable realm within each of Wessel's minute details: a single leaf, a fold of drapery, or the subtle graduation of flesh tones from a shadowy chin to the blush of a cheek.

Overarching themes in Wessel's opere d'arte are embedded in dichotomous pairings: the infinite magnitude of the night sky compared to the brief, material complexity of life on earth and in the sea; the measurable, knowable nature of science in contrast to the insights about humankind's role in the universe that can only be discerned through the arts and humanities; precision and fluctuation; the continuity of time as marked by seasons, the zodiac, and lunar phases in contrast to ephemeral youth within a single life span; the timelessness of deities in classical mythology as a foil to individual, contemporary women; the beauty of blossoms and awakening femininity with an awareness of their inevitable waning; and in formal terms, the illusion of three-dimensional, hyperrealistic figures against gold-leaf backgrounds. In Wessel's paintings, a frozen moment during the prime of each woman's life is likened to one of the fixed stars in the vault of heaven above her. The depth of Wessel's iconography and his mastery of Renaissance techniques yield works of art that are as sublime in meaning as they are expertly crafted. Beyond luminous jewels that delight the eyes, these gilded panels invite us to envision and embrace the empyrean.


About the author

Katherine T. Brown, Ph.D., is Director of Museum Studies and Asst. Prof. of Art History, Walsh University, North Canton, Ohio


About the exhibition

Eternal Beauty: Egg Tempera Paintings by Fred Wessel is being held at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts from June 25 through October 2, 2016.

The technique of egg tempera painting has been practiced since ancient times. The exacting process of mixing pigment with egg yolk and water, then applying thin layers of paint to a carved wooden panel creates images of great detail and luminescence. Fred Wessel is among the artists today working in egg tempera and he has emerged as a true master of the medium.

The exhibition has been organized by the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts with the cooperation of the Arden Gallery, Boston, in facilitating loans for the exhibition.


(above: Fred Wessel, Taurus, 2015. egg tempera with gold, silver, and palladium leaf, 24 x 18 inches. Courtesy of The Loewenhardt Family Trust)


Artist Statement

A two-week trip to Italy in 1984 had a profound and prolonged influence on my work. I went to Italy to view the art of the Renaissance, for it is my belief that all visual artists, especially realists, should experience and study this work firsthand. I could not have predicted the dramatic impact, both direct and indirect, that this journey of discovery would have on my ensuing work. I believe that in our search for novelty in post-modernist art making, we often lose touch with certain basics: beauty, grace, harmony and visual poetry are nowadays rarely considered important criteria in evaluating contemporary works of art.
Since the Bauhaus, the term 'precious' has had a negative connotation in art schools. It was a term used derisively in the 1960's to describe work that did not adhere to the fashionably pared down kernels of conceptualism or minimalism.
But after seeing the beauty, sensitivity, harmony -- the 'preciousness' -- of Italian Renaissance painting -- especially the early Renaissance work of artists such as Fra Angelico, Duccio and Simone Martini -- I realize that, as artists, we may have abandoned too much. The ever­changing inner light that radiates from gold leaf used judiciously on the surface of a painting, and the use of pockets of rich, intense colors that illuminate the picture's surface impressed me deeply. It was 'preciousness' elevated to grand heights: semi­precious gems such as lapis lazuli, malachite, azurite, etc., were ground up, mixed with egg yolk and applied as paint pigments, producing dazzling, breathtaking colors! The surface of these colors forms a texture that sparkles and reflects light much like gold does, but in ways that are much more subtle than gold.
I look to the early Renaissance as a source of inspiration that I can use along with contemporary content and image making. I look to the Renaissance as the artists of that time looked back to early Greek and Roman art-not as a reactionary but as one who rediscovers and reapplies important but forgotten visual stimuli.

Artist Biography

Holding Professor Emeritus status after 35 years teaching at The Hartford Art School, University of Hartford, Fred Wessel continues to live and work in Northampton, Massachusetts. He earned a B.F.A. at Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY, and then studied at the Pratt Graphics Center, NYC, prior to obtaining an M.F.A. at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA. Wessel's work has been exhibited in numerous invitational and solo exhibitions across the country. His work can be found in many important collections, including The Museum of Modern Art, NY, and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, IL.

Checklist for the exhibition

Giana (Virgo - Fibonacci Revisited, Sacred Geometry), 2008
egg tempera and gold leaf
20" x 16"
Lauren (Study), 2011
egg tempera and gold leaf
7" x 5"
Meghan, 2011
egg tempera and gold leaf
18" x 14"
Jacqui Corona, 2012
egg tempera with gold, silver, and palladium leaf
30" x 24"
Jacqui (Study), 2012
egg tempera and gold leaf
9" x 6"
Libra, 2013
egg tempera with gold leaf on panel
33 x 22
Private Collection
Cassiopeia, 2014
egg tempera with gold, silver, and palladium leaf
24" x 18"
Delphinus, 2014
egg tempera and cultured pearls with gold, silver and palladium leaf
24" x 18"
The Constellation Cancer, 2015
egg tempera with gold, silver, and palladium leaf
24" x 18"
Katie (Study), 2015
egg tempera and gold leaf
7" x 5"
Pearl, 2015
egg tempera with gold, silver, and palladium leaf
14" x 11"
Courtesy of Dr. Michael Wood
Taurus, 2015
egg tempera with gold, silver, and palladium leaf
24" x 18"
Courtesy of The Loewenhardt Family Trust
Aquila, 2016
egg tempera with gold, silver, and palladium leaf
24" x 18"
Draco the Dragon, 2016
egg tempera with gold, silver, and palladium leaf
30" x 24"
Self Portrait (Carnival), n.d.
9" x 7"


Other materials

To view the exhibition brochure, please click here.

To view the exhibition wall panel "Egg Tempera Timeline," please click here.

To view the exhibition wall panel "Making Egg Tempera Paint, please click here.

Resource Library editor's notes:

The above essay was published in Resource Library on August 16, 2016 with permission of the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, which was granted to TFAO on August 15, 2016. Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Karla J. Niehus, Associate Curator of Exhibitions, Kalamazoo Institute of Arts for her help concerning permission for publishing the above essay and other materials.

For checklist and wall panels definitions, please see Definitions in Museums Explained.

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For biographical information on artists referenced in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists

Read more information, articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts in Resource Library.


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