Daily Art Moment: Ralph Chessé

A square oil painting of a family of three dark skinned individuals: a male presenting figure, a female presenting figure and a child figure. The figures are highly stylized with thick, truncated bodies. Each has their head turned to the side showing a prominent jawline and flat eyes placed high on and close to the bridge of the nose. At center is the mother figure, she reaches out her arms grasping the child’s arm who stands on the right. The mother wears a yellow top, red skirt and an orange-red head covering. The child wears blue overalls and stretches his arms out to its mother. His head is tilted up, he has short curly hair with scalp peeking through. On the left the father figure stands slightly behind the mother in an opened neck pink shirt and blue pants. All three figures are barefoot. Brushwork appears thick, layered and rough. The family stands in a surreal setting: the brown floor they stand on almost appears to be a raft on which they float, the interior wall behind suggests a plaster wall with exposed wood lathe. A window with yellow curtains appears at right. The background is depicted as a deep blue sky with several white clouds. On either side of the family appear the outlines of bunches of green leaves. The painting is in a white square frame that shows exposed wood, looking scraped and worn.

Ralph Chessé experimented with a variety of styles from cubism to expressionism throughout his career, and the form of his work ranged from murals to puppetry, though painting took precedence. Much of his work prior to 1956 addresses African American themes or concerns, including his boyhood in New Orleans. In his retirement, he relocated to Ashland, Oregon and painted extensively until his death. In “Family Portrait” we see a traditional family of a mother, father, and child. They hold on, boarded in a fragmented room, in a house that is exposed to the outside elements. The central figures hold each other close, tensely, as the fragile home seems to barely protect them from the stormy weather.

Grace Kook-Anderson, The Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Curator of Northwest Art

Ralph Chessé (American, 1900–1991). Family Portrait, 1944. Oil on canvas. Museum Purchase: Funds provided by the Bequest of F. Harrison Taylor, 2001.19 © Estate of Ralph Chessé

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