New Orleans Museum of Art

New Orleans, LA



Henry Casselli: Master of the American Watercolor


The works of New Orleans native Henry Casselli are presented in his first major retrospective, Henry Casselli: Master of the American Watercolor, on view at the New Orleans Museum of Art through January 7, 2001.

The retrospective unites art from a 36-year career. It includes pieces rendered while on tour in Vietnam for 14 months and during his observation of two Space Shuttle launches, as well as many commissioned portraits and watercolor essays. Despite Casselli's broad expanse of experiences while creating his drawings and paintings, his work has maintained a consistent personality uniquely its own. Realistic and quietly asserting emotional depth, his art shows the influences of Homer, Degas, Sargent and Wyeth.

Born in New Orleans and raised in the racially diverse Ninth Ward, Henry Casselli grew up comfortably with friends both black and white. Of his extensive portrayal of African-Americans, he says: "Some of the black people I knew back then were the most profound people I've known." His closeness to a significant part of the population in a town divided along racial lines certainly led to his ability to later paint these subjects with depth and understanding. (left: Sunflowers, 1993, watercolor and drybrush on paper, 21 x 29 inches, Private collection)

He began his studies in 1964 at the McCrady School of Fine and Applied Arts and joined the faculty by the end of his second year. Shortly thereafter, however, he felt it his duty to join in the war in Vietnam and enlisted in 1967. He was assigned the rank of "combat artist" and produced hundreds of compelling works during his 14 months there. His drawings are part of the collection of the United States Marine Corps Museum of Military History in Washington, D.C.

After he returned to the United States he began to work extensively in watercolor. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration asked him to serve as an official artist of the first Space Shuttle launch. Following this prestigious appointment, he was invited to paint the official portrait of Ronald Reagan, which now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. He has continued to produce watercolors and line drawings, as well as works in pastels and oil. (left: White Gown, 1985, watercolor on paper, 29 x 21 inches, Collection of Diane Shaw)

Over the years Casselli has garnered many awards in keeping with his varied and distinguished accomplishments. The American Watercolor Society awarded him the Silver Medal of Honor in 1986, followed by the Gold Medal of Honor in 1987. He also was elected a full Academician in 1992, which is the highest honor one can receive from the National Academy of Design in New York.

The artist's style is personal and conveys the emotional presence of his subjects. He has been a longtime admirer of Wyeth, and his art is often compared to Sargent and Cassatt. He portrays his subjects with a realistic intensity that describes their being as much as their bearing. Casselli expresses concern that his portraits "must be alive with the sense of life and breath of the individual." Casselli has done this throughout his career, from capturing the spirit and mood of soldiers in the Vietnam War to his beatific rendition of a mother and her child. (left: Sore Ankles, 1982, watercolor on paper, 29 x 21 inches, Collection of Ken and Grace Newburger)

Casselli has enjoyed a deep and personal relationship with God all of his life, and even considered joining the priesthood in his teens. This relationship has guided him throughout his career and he attributes his artistic work to the inspiration of God. It is perhaps this profound humility that enables him to paint an old man remembered from his youth with the same depth of feeling as he did the president of the United States. He functions as a true artist: to see beyond mere surface and to translate what he apprehends into a universal language.


Excerpt from Donelson Hoopes' essay in "Henry Casselli: Master of the American Watercolor:"

Henry Casselli's life and art intersect inexorably with that of New Orleans. Born in the racially mixed Ninth Ward near the French Quarter, he has a firm grasp on the realities that permeate the daily experiences of ordinary people, particularly in that section of the city. His work has taken him far afield, such as his involvement with the NASA "Artistry in Space" project, but his attachment to his roots in New Orleans remains at the heart of Casselli's abiding concern as a painter whose primary focus is fixed on the qualities that he finds in his encounter with the life around him. These concerns for the human experience are essential to his work and form its dominant character.

Casselli began his studies in New Orleans at the McCrady School of Fine and Applied Arts in 1964. John McCrady (1911 - 1968) was an influence on Casselli's direction, certainly; but, McCrady's principal function as a teacher was largely to affirm the rightness of Casselli's natural inclinations. As early as his second year at the McCrady School, Casselli's mentor was confident enough to invite him to join the faculty as an assistant instructor. Casselli matured at the McCrady School through sheer application to work and, as he says, from learning from "every piece of art I've ever seen," which included reproductions he found in books.

The war in Vietnam escalated in the early years of the Johnson Administration, and Casselli found himself drawn into the conflict even as he was beginning to flourish at the McCrady School. While it is not unusual for the military to convert barbers in civilian life into bakers, the Marine Corps, to its credit, recognized Casselli's gifts. He was duly assigned the position of "combat artist." This was not a "rear echelon" dispensation, however. Casselli was sent to Vietnam, and immediately saw action in the massive Tet Offensive launched by the Viet Cong. As he recalls, "Within three days of my arrival, I was knee-deep in war. I had to be a Marine first just to survive." Somehow, he managed to summon the will to commit himself to sketching what he witnessed of the war, the "hell and the unspeakable horrors of Vietnam," as he says. Many of these drawings are remarkable for their quality of a gritty intensity, utterly devoid of any inclination toward academic finesse. Looking at them, one feels not only "knee-deep in war," but also knee-deep in the mud of Vietnam and the anguish of the combatants.

The sense of immediacy in Casselli's combat drawings and paintings is what distinguishes them as works of art; moreover, as documents of a momentous period of United States history, they are of lasting importance. Both of these aspects would emerge again in 1980, when he was invited by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to serve as one of its official artists, with the assignment to record the preparations for America's first Space Shuttle launch. His Vietnam drawings in the United States Marine Corps Museum collection were part of the impetus for NASA's overture, since it was looking for an artist who had proven his ability to work under the demanding conditions presented by the highly charged environment of the Houston Space Center. His drawings of astronauts John Young and Bob Crippen preparing for Space Shuttle simulations are full of a nervous energy, conveying a sense of high excitement by their sheer rapidity of notation. The following year, Casselli was present for the preparations for actual launch of the Space Shuttle, this time taking on the more demanding task of working in watercolor. And again in 1998, he was invited to record for posterity the flight preparations of his most celebrated astronaut subject, John Glenn.

Following his discharge from the Marine Corps in 1970, Casselli returned to New Orleans. As he recalls the event, "Mr. McCrady died three days after my return from Vietnam. We never had the chance to speak about, share or work through any of my experiences there as an artist or as a young man at war. I lost the one person I felt I needed most at that point in my life. I found myself truly on my own; for while I had shown signs of independent development as an artist in Vietnam, the return home to Mr. McCrady's death really cut me loose from him and the school's influence."

Casselli's methods of working and, of course, his subject matter took on a completely new character. He now concentrated upon watercolor as his preferred medium, which he feels was both a natural and spontaneous choice. He also began to rediscover a sense of identification with the life of blacks in his native New Orleans neighborhood and to evolve his creative responses to it. One of the earliest watercolors in the present exhibition, Morning Cup (1971), is suffused with the kind of quiet and pervasive undercurrent of emotional intensity that would come to typify his homage to that life. Almost as if rejecting the expected norms of the medium, Casselli began to use watercolor for his black subjects not primarily as a vehicle for luminosity, but with an opaque density, which becomes a visual metaphor. These pictures are meditations upon the condition of this portion of southern humanity, which he treats with a deep respect utterly free of condescension.

Barely a year later, as he resumed his career, Casselli's work began to appear with remarkable frequency in exhibitions from Texas to New England. In 1971 alone, there were a dozen venues, including the prestigious American Watercolor Society in New York, where his first submission won him an award. He would continue to exhibit annually at the society's exhibitions, garnering prizes along the way, eventually winning its Silver Medal of Honor in 1986, followed by the society's distinguished Gold Medal of Honor the next year for Echo. In that fifteen-year interval, Casselli essentially solidified his position as a major figure in American watercolor painting.

Casselli's confident mastery of watercolor has enabled him to advance the medium into the area of commissioned portraits. Among the most challenging commissions of his career was for a portrait of President Ronald Reagan, an assignment that spanned two years because of official delays. Casselli was finally granted several hours of the president's time over a period of four days in 1988. A series of pencil drawings he made in the Oval Office resulted in the life-size oil portrait now in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. The drawings are remarkable likenesses, conveying the animation and presence of the sitter; moreover, there is a fluency of rapid notation in them that recalls what he achieved under a much different sort of stress in Vietnam.

Over the past decade Casselli has concentrated his focus upon the kind of subject he began to essay with Morning Cup in 1971. Echo, the work that won him the American Watercolor Society's Gold Medal in 1987, was seminal in that it set forth a conceptual paradigm for what followed, particularly in the way he makes dramatic contrasts of positive and negative space between the figure and the background. The sources are often to be found in his complex reactions to stimuli, not only sight, but sound. He chose the title of Echo, for example, on recalling the footfall of the subject's shoes on the floor of an empty cotton warehouse, the setting for the painting.

The sources driving Casselli's imagination are located both in art and in his deep-seated memory. Memory plays a pivotal role in Dodger, a species of portrait of a man Casselli knew from childhood and had always wanted to paint. The man was known to Casselli simply as "Mr. Paul," but the painting's title evolved from the artist's associated memories of long-ago evenings in his old neighborhood: "After listening to the 6:15 evening prayers that were broadcast on the radio, Mr. Paul would always tune in to the Dodger baseball game. This circumstance was the stimulus which produced a true portrait of this man." Eventually, in 1992, he sketched him from memory, without any intent to realize a painting; later Dodger "just appeared" under Casselli's brush. What cannot be explained is the presence of the menacing hook; even the artist confesses that he has "no idea" concerning its meaning. Yet it surely must have a lurking, subconscious import for him because it emerges time and again in his work.

Donelson Hoopes is a historian and critic of American art. He is the past director of the Portland Museum of Art, Maine, as well as past curator at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; the Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York; and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art , among others. He is the author of a number of books on American art, including "David Armstrong Watercolors" (1985), "Sassone" (1979), "Childe Hassam" (1979), "American Watercolor Painting" (1977), "The American Impressionists" (1972), "Eakins Watercolors" (1971), "Sargent Watercolors" (1970) and "Winslow Homer Watercolors" (1969).

Henry Casselli: Master of the American Watercolor was organized by the New Orleans Museum of Art. The exhibition will be on view at NOMA through January 7, 2001, and at the Greenville County Museum of Art , Greenville, South Carolina, February 6 through May 6, 2001.

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