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written by Erica Lindsay Walker, vice president, education chair

Hélène Béland

Hélène Béland

I love the whole “encounter” aspect of portraiture. You can be walking through a gallery and suddenly there on the wall is a face that looks back, not just a picture but a person. You stop, intrigued. A silent introduction follows. Often this develops into an intense mute conversation. When at last you move on it is with regret, wishing you could have stayed longer, promising to come again. You are not only looking at, you are relating to.

This is the feeling I had immediately when first seeing Daniel Brient’s “Hélène Béland”. She seems so alive, so vivid. I smiled back at her, and I had to stop and get to know her.

This is what I call a “simple” portrait, meaning everything is very straightforward. There is no busy background, no props. The artist has included his subject’s elegant hands, but they are folded quietly in front of her. (This actually reminds me a bit of the Mona Lisa – if it worked for Leonardo, we can do it too!) Her clothes are rather elaborate, particularly her large hat and rosette, but they have been toned down and simplified. They settle into the background so as not to compete with the face.

Much of the intimacy of this portrait is is due to the use of light. Brient uses a 3-quarter positioning, with the light coming from the right. We see that the eye furthest from us is in shadow, while the near eye is soft and clear. This gives an impression that she is turning toward us, which gives a subtle but very important energy to the work. Anyone who has ever done a portrait knows how difficult it is to keep it from looking “posed”. Things can so easily become stiff and artificial, especially a smile. But Hélène’s expression looks genuine, as if in another moment she will speak.

For me, “warm” is a key word to this work, and I find that the brown palette suits it perfectly. The faint hints of pink breathe life into the fleshtones, and I do not miss other colours in the least. Brient handles the textures deftly, suggesting rather than fully describing. Tight detail is not the focus; the face and expression are. His marks are somewhat rough, the background sketchy. Only with the hands and face does he soften his technique, though again, fine detail is never his concern. What details there are have been carefully chosen to enhance the overall effect. For example, Brient picks out a few individual tresses of hair. They are slightly tousled, suggesting that his subject has just moved or shaken her head. Her face looks full of movement too – perhaps she is about to laugh. Portraits like this are so rewarding. I hope you have enjoyed meeting Hélène Béland as much as I have!

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