Whether she portrays mice or men, Marina Dieul evokes a timeless quality
By Bonnie Gangelhoff
This story was featured in the November 2015 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art November 2015 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story
One mouse sports a red bow around its neck, another one a string of pearls. Others poke their heads through slices of Swiss cheese or gnaw their way through wood and wallpaper. Welcome to the world of Canadian painter Marina Dieul. While many people find mice cringe-worthy in real life, in art Dieul’s visual narratives are so wildly popular that she has long waiting lists. Collectors are eager to snap them up as soon as they become available, according to her galleries. Since the artist began the series in 2011, she has sold 205 of her miniature mouse works, which some observers have declared true “mousterpieces.”
Dieul says the idea for the series arrived like a welcome epiphany. In her imagination she envisioned a tiny mouse peeking through a round hole in a round frame. “I was unsure about the success of it,” Dieul says. “Most people I know seem to show mild to severe mouse phobia. But it looks like their phobia hasn’t prevented them from loving my little compositions.”
But the much-loved paintings of mice are far from being the only thing Dieul creates; she is well known for her exquisitely painted figurative works such as BACCHANTE 3, which won seven top honors in the past several years, including an award of exceptional merit in the Portrait Society of America’s prestigious annual competition. Dieul’s paintings regularly appear in invitational realism shows across the country and beyond. This month her portrait of a young girl, LA BAIGNEUSE, is on view in the International Art Renewal Center’s show at the Museu Europeu d’Art Modern in Barcelona, Spain. Whether she is portraying infants, young children, mice, or men, her works evoke a timeless quality reminiscent of great master artists dating back to the Italian Renaissance.
Scott Jones, general manager of Legacy Gallery, which represents Dieul’s work, calls it “a phenomenon.” Not only is she an outstanding painter, Jones says, but the way her paintings appeal across a broad spectrum of collectors is nearly unparalleled. “Our most seasoned collectors are enthralled by her work. On the other hand, her pieces are often purchased by first-time buyers. Her trompe l’oeil technique amazes, and her subject matter captivates. We have seen success with all of her paintings—figures, drawings, animals, and, of course, her mouse series. Yes, the mice are cute, but I am impressed with how well they are painted and creatively executed.”
Dieul grew up in a 17th-century stone house in the seaside town of Port-Louis, France. As a child Dieul recalls that she spent more time painting and drawing than playing with other children. Her father, an architect, had dozens of books about the Italian Renaissance, and she eagerly pored over their pages. Growing up Dieul also spent countless hours visiting museums throughout France and Italy, not only in the big art centers like Paris, Rome, and Florence, but also in smaller towns.
As a teenager she discovered paintings by French artists such as François Boucher and Jean-Honoré Fragonard and the Dutch and Flemish masters. (To this day these artists still influence Dieul’s conception of what is beautiful.) It came as no surprise to anyone who knew her back then that she eventually enrolled in art school. But much to her disappointment, l’Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Lorient wasn’t interested in what she and the Dutch masters found beautiful. The classes focused on conceptualism, the art fad du jour.
Dieul searched for another art school that valued realism but eventually settled on becoming her own teacher. Day after day she copied works by the greats she found in art books, such as Johannes Vermeer and Sandro Botticelli. She scrimped on food so she could buy more and more art books. It was during this time in her early 20s that she developed a passion for the trompe l’oeil technique, and she received her first commission in 1995.
Five years later Dieul and her husband, seeking a new adventure, packed up their belongings and moved to Canada. Dieul had stopped painting in France because, at the time, there was little interest in realism, and even less interest in a young woman who painted in that style. In Canada she found a fresh start. Today Dieul lives in Montreal and works in a cozy studio space in her home where natural light abounds. Artificial light makes her feel as if she is color blind, she says.
While her works are beautifully painted, there is usually more at play than first meets the eye. For starters, Dieul incorporates a vast knowledge of art history in her paintings, referencing some of the artists she has loved since her younger days. Take BACCHANTE 3. Dieul says the inspiration for the piece springs from a work by 19th-century French painter Jean-Léon Gérôme titled LA BACCHANTE. The work is known as a tondo, or circular painting, and the word “bacchante” refers to figures that symbolized decadence. As Dieul says, “Bacchantes were portrayed in unflattering ways, like naked women dancing drunk.”
In Gérôme’s painting the bacchante is depicted with horns. Dieul says the painting haunted her because in spite of the devil-like horns, the woman portrayed seemed strong and graceful. Creatures that are half-human and half-animal from Greek mythology have long intrigued Dieul. And in Bacchante 3 she was able to bring her own spin to Gérôme’s painting while also incorporating Greek mythology, bacchantes, and tondos. For the subject of her tondo she chose a model that was close to home, her daughter, Maïlis. “I used her more like an allegory, representing the new generation of women,” Dieul says. “I wanted to include several dichotomies—sweetness and strength, childhood and adulthood, nature and culture, ancient world and modern, and the colors orange and blue.”
In LA BAIGNEUSE Dieul again brings her own vision to a work inspired by the pages of art history. While she created it, she kept a painting of the same name by Jean-August-Dominique Ingres in mind. “I’ve always been fascinated by the purity of line in an Ingres work,” Dieul says. “I chose a tondo format to accentuate the softness of the curves, and I decided to add a blue light to build a sculptural quality to my daughter’s very fair skin, contrasting it with a dark-blue background.”
Some of Dieul’s paintings, including Bacchante 3, appear to have frames, but they are painted illusions that showcase Dieul’s talent for “fooling the eye” with her trompe l’oeil technique. In photos of the paintings it’s difficult to discern what is painted and what is real, she cautions readers. “I tend to think trompe l’oeil is the ultimate form of painting,” she says. “I’ve been fascinated since I was a child by the ability to create the illusion of the three dimensional with only two dimensions.”
Although Dieul and her family now live in Canada, she returns to France regularly to visit and study. This past year she arranged a house exchange with a French family, allowing her time to peruse museums and explore different mediums like etching and lithography. The painting PETITE SOURIS 208 is an example of one of her recent explorations. In the humorous work, a mouse appears to be eating its way through a portrait of a Victorian-era couple. While abroad, Dieul began to collect 19th-century etchings as well as old paper stock. “I decided to give new life to some of them,” she says. “I found the possibilities of storytelling fascinating when I added a little mouse to this cheesy 19th-century scene.”
Humor and poetry often play starring roles in Dieul’s works because she enjoys telling stories. By the way, Dieul’s animal portraits feature not only mice but also cats, pigs, and rabbits, in both real and illusionary frames, often wittily suggesting the portraits of humans that have hung on walls for centuries. Her specific artistic interest in mice harks back to her childhood, when she first saw the furry brown creatures depicted in paintings. “You could always find a little mouse in Dutch and Flemish still lifes, a detail that delighted me,” she recalls.
The Dutch still lifes by the masters were not simply lush, beautiful depictions of the good life; each fruit, flower, or object was often a symbol. Flowers could represent mortality, for example. Mice could be a symbol of fertility. Dieul is aware of the symbolism that prevailed back then, but she is interested in mice as subject matter for the playful possibilities they offer in her visual narratives. “When I work with mice, the social behavior and natural curiosity of these little critters make them perfect models for me,” she says.
As this story was going to press, Dieul was preparing to begin several new figurative compositions and also catch up on commissions for her “mousterpieces.” For the first time she is creating a posthumous mouse portrait. “I couldn’t say no to this poor lady who lost her dear mouse, Jeremy,” she says.
Beyond beauty, happiness, and poetry, Dieul says she isn’t trying to convey a deep or hidden message in her works. “I paint for myself because I can’t fully live without painting. I know I have tried,” she says. “I’m just happy to paint, happy to be surrounded with beauty. And the joy of being able to give life to beautiful creations is immense.”
Legacy Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ, Jackson, WY, and Bozeman, MT; Marine Arts Gallery, Marblehead, MA; S.R. Brennen Fine Art, Palm Desert, CA, and Santa Fe, NM; Cube Contemporary Art Projects, Bowden, Australia; Perez & Ortiz Fine Art Gallery, Santiago, Chile.
Featured in the November 2015 issue of Southwest Art magazine–click below to purchase:
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