Alessandro Tomassetti’s Male Muses
From an early age, artist Alessandro Tomassetti (born in Toronto, Canada, 1970) acquired a taste for fine art during summers spent in Rome on family visits. Especially inspired by the Italian Masters of the Baroque and Renaissance eras, such as Caravaggio and Bernini, he studied Fine Art and Art History at McMaster University, specifically focusing on lithography and painting. In continuation, Tomassetti enhanced his artistic foundation by studying Computer Animation, which led to creating special effects for the movie industry in Los Angeles, California. Dissatisfied with the lack of autonomy involved with film work, Tomassetti went on to study Fashion Design, starting his own menswear label named Filius and launching a concept store called All Purpose.
Unforeseen circumstances regarding his immigration status drove Tomassetti and his husband to leave the US and travel around the world while they searched for a more welcoming place to settle down. After a year-long journey that offered life-changing experiences they relocated to Barcelona, Spain, which serendipitously opened up new opportunities regarding the arts. While attending classes held by renowned Spanish figure painter Eloy Morales, Tomassetti found a new form of expression painting the human figure using oils — he found his voice and hasn’t looked back since.
Tomassetti paints men, describing his models as “the beardos, surfers, slicksters, femmes, machos, dandies, and neo-hippies that populate social media.” He firmly believes that today’s age of the digital selfie has increased the value and standing of the painted portrait. Tomassetti clarifies his choice of subject matter, saying, “Around the time I started painting, it became clear that my favorite artists throughout history had painted males but my favorite contemporary figurative artists mostly focused on female subjects. Contemporary male portraits still seem reserved for “important” men, that is, conventionally powerful men.”
This insight prompted him to eschew more blatantly heroic or allegorical themes by portraying males with the same vulnerability and intimacy that is used to great effect by his contemporaries who paint women. This new formulation of presenting the male figure in a more tender and romanticized way has led to his current body of work. In regards to his creative expression, Tomassetti states, “I’m interested in documenting the versions of masculinity these men represent while flipping the script on the male gaze and reintroducing the intimate and the sensual to the contemporary male portrait.”
While Tomassetti doesn’t consider himself a true academic or technical painter, his artwork is firmly planted in traditional naturalism without the need to describe every single detail — instead, he renders the pictorial qualities of hair and skin in broader, more unifying gestures and loosely flowing brushstrokes. His striking and elegant compositions and intense, often dusky color palette are undoubtedly influenced by his background in fashion editorials and animated storytelling, where vivid visual impact plays a highly prominent role, here serving to enhance his portraiture tremendously.
The Queen Is Dead is the fruitful result of a photoshoot with a Dutch model whom Tomassetti initially feared looked too young and too pretty to create an impactful portrait of. Using a sheepskin rug as a cloak, the model was asked to imagine himself as the ambitious next in line to the throne. This astute request for theatrical roleplaying resulted in this remarkable portrait in which Tomassetti masterfully captures not only the model’s delicate features and exquisite radiance, but also his regal, steely expression which is further enhanced by the juxtaposition between the sharp rendering of the face and hair and the loosely painted hands and fur.
Tomassetti’s on-going Duo Series are paintings that capture individual moments in a short time span, yet need not be seen together as a diptych to impact the viewer. Animal Lover 1 & 2 are the first in this series, depicting Jack, an attractive long-haired illustrator from London holding an elegant bouquet of pink and white lilies. The shifting sunlight plays a prominent role in this pair of paintings, as Tomassetti not only uses it to gracefully define facial features but also captures the light bouncing and scattering off the luminescent flower petals. The strong chiaroscuroenhances the primal masculinity of the model while the delicate flowers counterbalance the softer, more feminine aspect in these striking portraits.
Another pair of paintings in the Duo Series are I Know It’s Over 1 & 2, portraits of Barcelona singer Oscar who shows rapidly changing facial expressions from one piece to the next. Highly influenced by his previous career as a special effects animator, Tomassetti elaborates, “To quickly convey the direction an animation will take, we created key frames that marked the beginning and end of important transitions.” Fascinated by the speed in which a smile can disappear and how intensely this transforms a face, these portraits capture split seconds immediately before and right after hearing bad news. The title, I Know It’s Over is also the title of a song from one of Tomassetti’s favorite bands, the Smiths.
Tomassetti’s painting entitled Still Ill is a portrait of his barber, Alberto, who brought some of the tools of his trade as props to the sitting. On a whim, the barber held a razor blade between his lips, which resulted in a cut. While Tomassetti would have preferred the model to remain unhurt, he was fascinated how the bright red blood echoed the intense magenta rim light, hence creating a wonderful repetition of vivid fiery color that enlivens the overall muted palette and adds intensity to the sublime chiaroscuro.
The Killing of a Flashboy is another portrait of Jack the illustrator, also seen in Animal Lover. The seated figure is illuminated by a window with blinds just outside the picture plane, creating an interesting play of light on the loosely painted skin and texture of the striped sweater. Despite the use of a broad brush, the details are exquisite — especially the hands. Tomassetti skillfully used a cool palette of colors for all areas except the flushed skin, which seems to radiate and bounce off of its surroundings. Tomassetti says, “There is a resignation in his expression and a feeling of unease created by the composition that I think serve to pique the curiosity of the viewer.”
Animal Nitrate shows Colombian model Ricc who works as both a male and female on runways and in editorial, and whom Tomassetti describes as incredibly expressive and highly energetic. Wearing an extravagant white shirt designed by Tomassetti himself, the model poses as if in deep conversation, gesticulating with his hands while his cascading hair mirrors the mass of ribbons and crochet tendrils exploding out from underneath the epaulette. Tomassetti masterly captures the intensity and gravity of his subject, as well as his unique androgyny.
Tomassetti’s painting, entitled The Big Time, is a portrait of Swedish model Chris who designs and builds custom motorcycles. To add a quirky sense of strangeness to his model’s classic good looks, Tomassetti asked him to wear a lace glove — an interesting and unexpected feature that not only enhances the subject matter but stretches it beyond its classical characteristics — beautifully offsetting the warm colors of the flawless skin against the muted blues of the background and eyes.
In What She Said 1 & 2 Tomassetti portrays Aaron, a Los Angeles based jewelry designer with a large following, known for posting suggestive self-portraits on social media. Tomassetti, who describes this model as a gentle soul, sought to capture both sides of his personality — the media savvy firebrand and the soft-spoken gentleman. Tomassetti expertly juxtaposes the splendid warmth of skin tones against cooler colors found in clothing and background, balancing the composition and emphasizing a rich variety of textures.
Highly inspired by the emotions he felt upon first seeing Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s white marble Ecstasy of Saint Teresa in Rome, Tomassetti borrowed part of its pose and demeanor for his painting entitled My Insatiable One, adding an unexpected contemporary twist by dressing his French model — ironically called Rome — in a plastic raincoat. In this painting, Tomassetti takes advantage of the interplay of the figure’s sinuous curves and the weightless volume of the raincoat to create a visual path leading up to the sternly defiant face, skillfully capturing the sensual translucency of the synthetic material against bare skin.
Tomassetti’s outstanding body of work proves that the fundamentals of classical realism can be successfully translated into innovative, contemporary portraits in which the unconventional male figure takes center stage yet need not surrender our timeless expectations of beauty, sensuality, and the lure of desirability.
Written by Lorena Kloosterboer, realist artist & author © Antwerp, Belgium.
Originally published in PoetsArtists Magazine, September 2017.