Portrait of a Portrait Artist

The artist who painted Father McFarland's new presidential portrait talks about sittings, smiles, and the exciting future of historical painting.


By Christine Hofmann-Bourque


Each working day, artist Warren Prosperi walks to the 200-year-old barn-turned-studio behind his Southborough, Massachusetts, home dressed as though he's headed to an elegant dinner party rather than to stand in front of a wooden easel. He dons, as is his habit, a starched, collared shirt under a tie, vest, and suspenders. His gold-rimmed spectacles look much like those in vogue in the 1800s. He works so meticulously that it's difficult to spot a single drop of errant paint on the ornate rug under his feet or on the black painting smock he adds to his ensemble.

"When I would see the painters who I'd most admired— photographs of Sargent in his studio or Sorolla or any of the 19th-century guys—they were always in their suits and there were Persian rugs on the floor," says Warren, who decided at age 15 that he wanted to walk in those painterly footsteps, artistically as well as sartorially. "So here I am. I made my own little version of it. That's the image of the artist to me, and it fit me very naturally." He laughs and asks with a chuckle, "Should I hang out in blue jeans because it's not my time?"

A self-taught portrait artist, Warren refined his painting techniques by spending hours in his younger years copying the Old Masters—from Rembrandt to Rubens—at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Those classical influences are on display in the dozens of portraits and murals he's created of influential New England residents, including doctors and leaders at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), Rhode Island Hospital, and Boston's Joslin Diabetes Center.

One of the most recent creations to come out of Warren's studio is a portrait of Rev. Michael C. McFarland, S.J., Holy Cross's 31st president. It now hangs permanently in Fenwick's hall of presidential portraits and is Warren's fifth portrait for the College. In addition to Fr. McFarland, he has painted Rev. Gerard Reedy, S.J., the 30th president; Rev. Francis X. Miller, S.J., '46, vice president emeritus for development; and Rev. John E. Brooks, S.J., '49, the 29th president whom Warren painted twice.

Warren may wield the paintbrush, but his wife of 36 years, Lucia, is an equal partner in their artistic creations, participating in everything from meeting with a portrait's subject to ensuring that a facial expression truly reflects a person's character. In fact, Warren rarely uses the word "I" when discussing his works, and Lucia's initials appear on the back of every canvas. "We've loved working for Holy Cross," says Warren, who happened to receive the official nod to paint Fr. McFarland the week that Lucia's nephew Matthew Jurgen Tyksinski '11 graduated from Holy Cross. "We've loved every commission."

Most of the Prosperis' portraits take 12 to 18 months to complete, and Fr. McFarland's was no exception. The first step in the process was for the Prosperis to meet in person with Fr. McFarland. "You need some encounter with the person," says Warren. "You can extrapolate from a photograph if you have a good imagination, but the best thing, of course, is to meet the person, get some idea of what they're really about."

(For their previous Holy Cross portraits, the Prosperis were able to meet several times with Fr. Brooks. Although they briefly met Fr. Reedy, they primarily worked from photographs for his portrait and for Fr. Miller's.)

Scheduling time into Fr. McFarland's schedule turned out to be a challenge not only because he was so busy, but also because he wasn't entirely sold on the idea of sitting for a portrait. "He was very reluctant," says Warren. "He gradually realized he had to do it. It was inevitable, it was going to be in the hall. And then he realized that we were very much into it and it could be fun. He really started relaxing, and we got a good sense of him. That's our job. We're like psychological dentists: We get them to relax, anesthetize them so they think, 'This isn't so bad,'" and then we get to work."

The Prosperis quickly discovered the president's witty side. "Father McFarland has that humor with that intelligence," says Lucia. That led to a brief discussion about whether his portrait should feature a smile or not. A quick glance at the hall of presidential portraits-each one solemn and straight-faced-persuaded them that one smiling portrait simply would not look respectful. "Unlike the 19th century when everybody was serious, there's this pressure to have a portrait be happy," says Lucia. "And if you're interested in human character, we're not just happy."

Before finalizing the painting, the Properis invited Fr. McFarland and Ruth Ann Elias '76, his executive assistant, to critique it. Fr. McFarland requested that a shadow on his chin be softened a bit. And Ruth noticed that his blue eyes should be a tad bluer. And with those small changes, the portrait was ready for its unveiling at Holy Cross.

Although contemporary portraiture like the one of Fr. McFarland remains the Prosperis' primary focus, they've developed an equal passion over the last two decades for historical painting. "I've been a history nut for a long time," says Warren, who, beginning in the 1990s, created a series of history paintings that hang in Boston's Joslin Diabetes Center.

An email sent by a stranger helped the Prosperis add a new dimension to a history methodology that they were in the process of developing. It was 2001, and Warren had recently finished "Ether Day," a large mural at MGH that depicts the historic occasion in 1846 when it hosted the first public demonstration of the use of ether as anesthesia during surgery. Material-culture historian Kevin McDermott sent the couple an email, pointing out details in the clothing showcased in the now-finished mural. "He said, 'The collars wouldn't have been starched, the lapels wouldn't have been pressed down, and vests didn't have points on the bottom back then, they were square,'" says Warren. "He knew how people looked in 1846."

The Prosperis relished this new development about the kind of detail they strive to include in their work. Although the hospital didn't ask him to, Warren took his paint brushes back to MGH to make changes. And Kevin became a very important consultant on the material culture each subsequent history mural required to meet the Prosperi's commitment to factual accuracy.

"History painting has never been that concerned with accuracy," says Warren. He points to Emmanuel Leutze's famous "Washington Crossing the Delaware." "It's brilliant dawn, and Washington's standing, and the flag's flying, and it's a beautiful thing," Warren says. The trouble is, Washington actually slunk quietly across the river in the dead of night so as not to alert the enemy. "That's the attitude that history painting has always taken-don't let the facts get in the way of the message," he says.

Warren decided to experiment with a different approach. Taking his cues from modern journalistic photography, Warren has set out to create historical paintings that are both dramatic and accurate. His current subject: A four-mural treatment of The Siege of Boston, which was the start of the American Revolution. "Certainly the beginning of the United States was a world-changing event," he says. "When I started, I thought, well everyone's done this. And then I realized: No one's done it historically accurately."

The impressive first mural, the enormous 7x10-foot "The First Casualty of Bunker Hill," was presented to the public at Vose Galleries in Boston last spring. However, before touching any paint to canvas, the Prosperis spent a full year doing research with McDermott as their lead historical consultant.

McDermott and his team of military experts that he calls "exploratory archaeologists" are integral to the murals' authenticity, especially since these events took place years before photography was invented. These men not only research and create garments identical to their revolutionary counterparts using fabrics purchased from England and Ireland, but also help the Prosperis recreate the war scenes outdoors with themselves as actors. The Prosperis take many photographs from which they then paint. The first mural took two years from start to finish.

"They're great collaborators," says Warren, who is being tailed by local filmmakers for a yet-to-be-released documentary, "The Journey to a Mural." (Watch a preview at http://www.vidforweb.com/mural/.) "I'd say, oh, gee, I wonder what the color of the dirt was at Bunker Hill, and five days later there's a treatise on the color of the dirt at Bunker Hill in my inbox, with all the references, all from first-hand accounts, weeded away of all the rumor. They're real empiricists."

The study for the second mural is almost finished; it features Samuel Whittemore, a 79-year-old who faced off with the British on the day of the Lexington alarm. The third mural will focus on a skirmish that led to the Boston Massacre, and the fourth on Henry Knox's oxen pulling canons over the Berkshires to help end the siege of Boston Harbor. An anonymous benefactor has provided the financing to date; the Prosperis hope a large donor eventually will step forward to buy all the paintings and donate them for public display.

"We became fascinated with what would be called the grunts of war, the everyday citizens," says Lucia, who notes that their subjects aren't the boldface names from the history books, but rather average men and women. "All the murals will be more about that than the heroes per se."

"All of this grew out of our interest in portraiture, which brings us back to Father McFarland," says Lucia. "It is really looking at human character."