Monday, January 18, 2016

Rudy's Legacy

Rudolph N. "Rudy" Colao (1927-2014), Peony Bouquet, Oil on Masonite, 11 ¼ by 15 ½ in., Private Collection

Peonies and Daisies, Oil on Board, Private Collection

Peonies and Daisies, Oil, 12 by 16 in.,

Lilac Bouquet, 12 by 16 in., Oil,

Thatcher Island Lighthouse, oil on canvas,  16 by 20 in.,

Seaside Farmhouse, Friendship, Maine, 16 by 20 in., Oil,

Friendship, Maine Wharf, Oil on panel, 16 by 20 in.,

One of my extracurricular delights when trawling for still life objects in the flea markets scattered around Manhattan in the 1980s and 90s was spotting framed prints of gorgeous, lively paintings of ample bouquets of lilacs, daisies, mums or peonies, usually in a copper pot or teakettle.  The flowers were always beautifully painted, with spirited brushwork and excellent tonal values.  The artist was always "R. Colao."

I didn’t know Rudolph N. "Rudy" Colao,  the artist who signed all his paintings "R. Colao."  I did meet him a couple of times in the late 1970s when I was studying painting at The Art Students League of New York, where he would substitute teach for Frank Mason once in awhile.  I knew he had later moved up to Rockport, Massachusetts.  And I was surprised and saddened to learn just the other day that he had died unexpectedly on October 4, 2014 at the age of 86 while walking back home from downtown Rockport. 

But I knew the most important thing about Rudy -- he had figured out how to paint a big bouquet of flowers expertly and seemingly without effort.  Painting flowers and other traditional still life subjects was a serious business for him, as it was with the great Henri Fantin-Latour.  I was talking about Rudy recently with one of Mason’s former students who remembered that Frank used to tell his aspiring artists not to disparage Rudy’s main work as a flower painter.  “He put two children through college on those paintings,” Mason would say.

Rudy sold his original oils in galleries around the country and prints of them galore, in various sizes, through Gimbels and other major department stores that had thriving art galleries within their confines throughout much of the 20th Century.  He probably had other outlets that I’m not aware of.  The Internet today is inundated with anxious queries about Rudy’s artwork.  A typical entry goes like this, “Can you tell me if my painting by R. Colao is worth money?”

I got a laugh when I saw on Yahoo! Answers that a couple of people were wondering why they owned the exact same still life painting by Rudy.   

“I have a painting by R. Colad (sic) with a pear grapes vase teapot and a knife,” wrote one correspondent.  “There are a lot of people claiming to have the same painting.  Do you know why?”

Another correspondent chimed in, “I also have a painting by R. colad (sic).  Don’t know who he is but if you find out could you please let me know…I found my painting at a flea market in Louisiana which is where I live…let me know where you live and what your painting is of.  My painting has a pear, a knife, grapes, a kettle and a bottle in it. Very good detail! It’s beautiful! Just let me know! Thanks and hopefully we can help each other out!!

Yahoo’s “Best Answer” was provided by someone over at AskART, a site that tracks auction results and much more about a multitude of American artists.  That appraisal expert warned that what looks like an original painting may in fact be a reproduction print:

Rudolph Colao's popular works have been extensively reproduced.  Many reproductions of your popular painting exist.

Rudolph Colao is known for still life paintings and for paintings of interiors. He painted prolifically from the 1950s though the 1990s…His original paintings have sold at auction from $600 to $30,000.  But his work has been extensively reproduced, and millions of copies of his works exist, so they are not particularly valuable. They tend to sell for about $25 to $40.

I often have difficulty myself telling whether back-sealed vintage framed art is a print or an original oil painting without close examination, so I can sympathize somewhat with all the confusion that exists out there in the real world with respect to Rudy’s artwork. 

Despite the enormous popularity of his paintings, Rudy once said, “I don’t think about ‘the art market’ as such - I just paint. I really paint because I want to, and because I need to. I have always felt that 1 never had any other choice!”

Rudy’s alla prima paintings of lavish bouquets of solo flowers inspired me to paint similar arrangements when bored with other still life subject matter -- the usual pots and pans and fruits and vegetables.  Flowers are as thrilling to paint as the human form and the great outdoors, two genres I am unable to paint due to specious circumstances beyond my control that are too depressing to constantly whine about, as I have done occasionally in previous blog posts in shameful fashion.

I’d love to be able to paint some of the flowers Rudy favored as skillfully as he did.  He could describe individual petals in a big bunch of lilacs and not make them look crudely out of place with the tonal mass, something that’s not so easy to accomplish.  And he had no apparent trouble painting those spindly petals on daisies that confound me.  Of course it’s very helpful for flower painters to keep their own gardens, as Rudy did in Rockport and Fantin did at his summer home in France in the 19th Century.  How I envy them.

Rudy was destined to become a wonderfully skilled painter because he had found his ideal mentor in Frank Vincent DuMond at the Art Students League, where he studied on the G.I. Bill after World War II.   DuMond taught for 59 years at the League, from 1892 until his death in 1951, and I’ll bet every one of his serious students learned more about painting than most of us who never had the opportunity to study with him.

How many times have we read stories about successful, gifted artists who swore allegiance to DuMond?  And I wonder how many other gifted DuMond students fell under the art market radar?   Rudy’s ex-wife, in fact, the late Camila McRoberts, was a very good painter herself and executed a number of important portrait commissions in the early 1950s.  The couple met in DuMond’s class, but she gave up painting to raise their three children, two girls and a boy.  They divorced in 1976 but remained friends, with Camila continuing to tend Rudy’s flower garden until her death in 2012 at the age of 83. 

Rudy was a member of several arts organizations, including Allied Artists of America, the Hudson Valley Art Association and the Rockport Art Association  AskART notes that articles on Rudy have appeared in American Artist Magazine (March 1975, and May 1982), Southwest Art Magazine (March 1982), and Focus/Santa Fe (Aug/Sept 1988).

An astute summation of Rudy’s painting skill was penned by Jill Warren in Southwest Art magazine:  Like all traditional realists, Colao uses value and simple shapes to show us more clearly than the camera or even the eye what his subjects look like. He achieves astonishing depth so that we can see the front, back and middle of his arrangements and bouquets, even though the canvas has no depth at all.

I’m reminded insecurely of an anecdote about DuMond, Rudy’s mentor, wherein DuMond was painting a landscape en plein air one day when a little boy who was watching him eventually exclaimed, “Look at that man, he’s making something out of nothing.”  I think I read that in an article about the landscape painter Paul Strisik, another of DuMond’s many successful students who also was based in Rockport.

Rudolph N. “Rudy” Colao’s life and career are lovingly recounted in an obituary published in the Gloucester Daily Times on Oct. 11, 2014, which can be read online.

What an amazing legacy Rudy has left us.  It seems as if he has more paintings or prints of paintings in American households than any other artist, including Norman Rockwell, Grandma Moses, and even Thomas Kinkade!  And why not?  On one Internet site, a seller of a set of four 8x10 in. prints on canvas of Rudy’s still life paintings boldly proclaims: “THESE PICTURES WILL BE GREAT TO LIVEN UP A KITCHEN OR EVEN A DARK HALL WAY.”  You know, I think that seller is absolutely right.

8x10 in. Prints on Canvas