Moving Toward the Light II, 2015 | Courtesy of Nancy Hoffman Gallery in New York

Watercolor paintings by Joseph Raffael take Canton museumgoers on a tour of visual beauty through the artist’s backyard

By Jacqueline Mitchell

Solstice, 2008 | Courtesy of Nancy Hoffman Gallery in New York

Solstice, 2008 | Courtesy of Nancy Hoffman Gallery in New York

Viewing one of Joseph Raffael’s watercolor paintings is like stepping into a garden, where the beauty of nature is magnified as your eyes travel through what one art critic described as “jewel encrusted passages.” Known for his color-saturated, large-scale paintings, Raffael is considered one of contemporary art’s most highly celebrated watercolorists. His paintings of flowers and other elements of nature showcase meticulous detail and a large, vibrant color palette.

The Canton Museum of Art will be home to a selection of Raffael’s watercolors when it hosts the exhibit “Moving Toward the Light” from Dec. 3 through March 6, 2016.

Canton worked in collaboration with Nancy Hoffman Gallery in New York to bring the exhibit to Northeast Ohio. The exhibition will travel from Canton to Ohio Southern Museum in Portsmouth to Flint Institute of Arts in Flint, Mich. for the final venue. A short film and a book titled “Moving Toward the Light” will accompany the exhibit.

The Canton Museum of Art first bought a Raffael painting from Hoffman in 1989 titled “Red Lily.”

“It’s been a museum favorite here for a long time,” says Lynnda Arrasmith, curator at the Canton Museum of Art.

The museum’s focus is on watercolors from the 1850s and forward, so they thought the Raffael exhibit would be a good fit and show visitors how current artists are using watercolors.

“We’re trying to bring the idea to people that watercolors can be interesting and huge and beautiful all at the same time,” Arrasmith says.

Raffael takes an unorthodox approach to watercolor, working wet into wet, as if he were painting in oil, allowing for spontaneous events to occur on his canvas. Typically, the rules of working with watercolors mandate painting wet over dry, but Raffael prefers to puddle the paint.

“He defies all the rules,” says Nancy Hoffman, president of Nancy Hoffman Gallery.

The scale of Raffael’s paintings also sets him apart in the realm of watercolor artistry.

“These watercolors are huge,” Arrasmith says. “You often think of them as 10 by 24 inches. These go up to 106 inches on paper. It’s like walking into a garden – they’re so huge.”

Though the exhibit consists of only about 30 paintings, because of their scale they will fill the entire gallery. The watercolors date back to the early 1980s and go all the way into 2015. Most of the watercolors are from the past 10 years. The exhibit also features a few oil paintings from the 1970s.

“They’re very lively,” Arrasmith says. “Often there’s a light in it that draws you to it.”

Autobiographical in nature, the paintings are inspired by Raffael’s home in the south of France. Though he was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., the artist, 82, has lived in France for the past 27 years. Everything he paints is in his backyard.

“You’re seeing a part of Joseph Raffael’s life,” says Arrasmith. “His house in France has gardens like this that his wife has developed over the years.”

Raffael works with a large scroll of paper when he creates his paintings. His images are generated from photos he takes of his garden. He then pencils a map of the image he’s going to paint. Each work takes months to complete.

“The mood (of the exhibit) is positive and celebratory in terms of addressing nature,” Hoffman says. “Joseph is a quintessential colorist, and through the colors, the depth of joy comes through. When you view a Raffael, you can’t help but feel uplifted. It’s a very healing kind of show. Each work is a jewel.”

Hoffman says that when viewing a Raffael painting, it’s not akin to anything one can see in everyday nature, because his paintings are so magnified and detailed.

“He’s painting an earthly paradise, and not in any cliché way, but in a magnified way,” she says. “When you see a painting of a rose that is 5 by 6½ feet, there’s this breathtaking quality of scale that really forces you to see things in nature that you would not see,” Hoffman says.

Raffael’s images of beauty offer a meditative quality, says Hoffman, when at times it feels as if there is little beauty in the world.

“Joseph is not afraid of beauty,” she says. “Beauty is not hip and chic and hasn’t been for a long time, though the pendulum is swinging back. If people go deeply into it in terms of their viewing, they will absorb that philosophy of beauty, and they will be immersed in a vision that is quite extraordinary.” CV

*Lead image: Moving Toward the Light II, 2015 | Courtesy of Nancy Hoffman Gallery in New York