Love of Creating Art Shines Through

April 18, 2016

Keith Powers, Cape Ann Beacon

“God Bless Art: The Portraits of Earle Merchant” at the Cape Ann Museum shows almost six dozen works by the Gloucester portraitist. Merchant (1903-97), who practiced law in Gloucester, took up portraiture in the 1960s. His work is classically untrained: perspective gets skewed; his sitters hardly ever reveal any psychological or emotional depth; attention to detail seems like an afterthought.

But the portraits are irresistible. All oils on canvas board, about the same size, each of the subjects has an oversized head, sits in conventional clothing (mostly Sunday best), hands folded in their laps.

Backgrounds are uniformly monochromatic, an afterthought. Most all of the sitters fit into the same wicker chair with exactly — impossibly — the same proportions. They look directly at the painter. (When they don’t, as in portraits of Nancy Ives, Susan Douglas and Beatrice Espovich, it was probably unintentional, and comes across as strikingly provocative.)

All this may sound like criticism of Merchant’s ability. Far from it. It simply describes what makes this body of work — a labor of love that chronicles the 1960s — appealing.

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