On Fountains- The Flow of Ideas and Imagery.
Updated: Apr 15
A Reflection on experiences from the fountains of the world; Rome, Guatemala, Philly, Ithaca, NY and Wyalusing, PA - Public Art that Inspires and elevates us all. By Brian Keeler
A new 30" x 30" Oil on linen of the Logan Fountain in Philly by Brian Keeler.
My first experience of note with the beauty and magnificence of public art, fountains in particular came in 1992 on my first trip to Italy. I was traveling alone with art supplies and schlepping my gear around the country with the gusto of a new backpacker. Being quite fit from years of jogging and yoga I combined the sojourn in a way to blend the artistic and athletic.
My initial pull to Italy came from my infatuation with the work of Caravaggio and Raphael. This interest was bolstered by a psychic in my hometown, Roberta Herzog, who among other things read the Akashic Record, which is an ethereal imprint of sorts of all that has been and will be. So she saw a connection between my work and that or Raphael. I was honored of course, to be whispered in the same phrase as the exalted Renaissance master.
So, as fate would have it, I noticed an advertisement for a workshop offered in printmaking at wonderful art center outside of Urbino, Raphael’s home in the Marche province in eastern central Italy. It was an incredible setting in a former mining town in the mountains. It was also an immersion in Italian language and cuisine as I was the only non-native there. Visiting Raphael’s home in the town of Urbino and the museums there was an incredible treat too. I just read where the contemporary figurative painter, Phillip Pearlstein visited there during World War Two and considers his visit there life changing. He recalls seeing Piero della Francesca’s “Flagellation of Christ” In the National Gallery of Umbria to be of profound influence. I have followed the “Piero Trail” there on occasion and taken students on later trips to Urbino.
Anyway, later in that first trip to Italy, near the end, I had time to explore Rome with my easel, paints and pastels. I was ambling through the city without agenda late on a July afternoon and found myself following the beautiful melody of an accordion and vocalists. It was wafting up through the ancient and Baroque architecture with the Italian language flowing and alluring and inviting me to follow. Well the melodic rhythms were issuing from Piazza Navona, the site of an ancient horse track, a smaller version of the Circus Maximus. The oval arrangement of the buildings still follows the old Roman stadium.
Brian Keeler painting in Piazza Mattei in Rome. The 1588 Turtle Fountain by Giacomo Della Porta is the muse here.
So upon arriving, the musician singing and playing turned out to be Asian, The beauty of the Piazza is beyond description. The center fountain is a spire, and obelisk of granite pilfered from Egypt in the BC era but now surrounded by Bernnini’s four River Gods in the sculptural ensemble known as the Quatro Fiume, or Four Rivers. It is figurative sculpture of nude gods at its most magnificent. The central fountain a hallmark of Rome’s long history of decorating the public spaces with great art.
Since then, I have returned many time to sketch and paint there but also to dance on occasion as the gypsy swing music is some of the best in the world. To a view a clip of yours truly dancing in Navona a few years ago check out this link, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ecY47VCrTyk
A plein air oil of one section of Bernini's fountain in Piazza Navona by Brian Keeler.
So, Navona was the first and followed by many other fountains usually with figurative sculpture in Rome. The fountain of all fountains is undoubtedly, Fontana de Trevi. This being the site of the iconic vignette in La Dolce Vita of Anita Eckberg calling out “Marcello” as she cavorts in the fountain at night. This is also a Bernini work of unparalleled magnificence. I think of this work and others as civic endeavors of the most salubrious for the people. What more can be better than having the fresh, cool and abundant water poring in around sea gods into the center of stone, marble and cobblestone city?
I should mention the little drinking fountains of Rome too. These small faucets, curved pipes with whole in the arch, so as to direct an arc of water up to thirsty mouths when the bottom of the spout is plugged. They are scattered around Rome. Much better than millons of plastic bottles of water, later left to besmirch our land, rivers and oceans.
Other more intimate fountain ensembles and statuary in Rome have inspired me and served as motifs for paintings including the Turtle Fountain. This lovely and whimsical baroque statue is not far from our hotel in Campo de Fiori and a place I took a student to work.
Perhaps my favorite fountain in Italy is in the center of Bologna, that medieval city north of Florence. I visited here on my first trip in 1992 and on several other occasions. The group I was leading was reluctant to go to Bologna, and regarded it as less-than-appealing, as they were eager to get to Venice. I think they were surprised and pleased eventually. The statue in Bologna that caught my attention is of Neptune, depicted towering above four nymphs with the fountain waters issuing from their nipples, with breasts upheld with hands. They have been described as lactating Venices. The statue is by Gian Bologna, a Netherlandish Sculptor of the 16thcentury who made his career in Florence. The work is of unbridled sensuality and splendor juxtaposed next to a nearby façade of the unfinished medieval church. I love how the licentious and the pious, the pagan and Christian, the ascetic and exuberant can coexist in Italy. The blending and acceptance of opposites is how it could be described. In fact, the whole ethos of Michelangelo, if the not unerpinnings of the Renaissance was to comingle the classical learning with the Christian doctrines, sometimes with amazing results, other times with more contentious results.
On one occasion while walking near the Forum in Rome with two friends from Ithaca I was sharing my delight about Rome and said, “they really know how to do cities here don’t they.” My friend replied, “how about Ithaca?” Wow! I couldn’t quite get that someone would think the two are on some kind of parity, but each to their own.
So my interest in portraying fountains and statuary has continued in other places, in Antigua, Guatemala for example, (see above painting) where there’s a statue of similar look to the Bologna one. But more so in Philadelphia, which is reputed to have more public sculpture than any other city in America. The museums of the world are great repositories of sculpture too and excellent resources for artists to sketch. They are often virtuosic examples of the human form expressed in marble, bronze and wood. These examples like Canova’s statue of Ugolino and his Sons in the Metropolitan museum shows the human form in dramatic and highly articulated form.
The Philadelphia ensemble, known as the Logan Fountain on the Ben Franklin parkway is one of America’s outdoor fountains that can rival those of Europe in figurative sculpture. It really is a splendid work. The waders that splash and cavort in the cooling waters on hot summer days are wonderful to watch and have inspired several of my own paintings. These works are regarded by myself as to be in the tradition of other American painters of genre scenes. Reginald Marsh, George Luks, Thomas Eakins and John Singer Sargent are among the painters who portrayed people swimming and otherwise enjoying the out of doors. One of my favorite paintings of this type is a small canvas by Sargent of woman painting in front of a fountain, probably I Italy, with a man casually seated behind observing.
Fountains offer a wonderful source of contemplation though as well. We welcome their opportunity to sit and observe and enjoy the flow of water and perhaps enjoy the carp and goldfish in the ponds below. On one occasion with students in Florence a heron skewered one underneath a Neptune statue in the Bobobli Gardens. Amazing to see the spindly bird lift and fly away with the fish that looked to be twice its weight.
Modern fountains are equally engaging at times. There is an amazing new one in front of the museum of the Ara Pacis in Rome. It is a long slab with the water engineered to flow evenly in just a centimeter of depth across its top.
Here in Ithaca, there is fountain on the newly renovated Commons that has come under fire in a letter to the editor recently for costing the taxpayers a lot of money. Hmm, well a valid point, but still it seems like public fountains deserve a place.
My earliest memories of a public fountain however come from my youth when my father went to considerable expense to create one in front his newspaper office, the The Wyalusing Rocket, a weekly paper. He had a spiraling chain welded together within a fountain, meant to suggest the freedom urge of the American people to honor the Bicentennial in 1976. One of the boys that worked for him, as a misguided Halloween prank, put dishwashing liquid in the fountain. My father observed him and his accomplice in the act and drove his van up to the escaping culprits who had driven to the gas station across the street, and shown his headlights right in their faces as to simulate and incriminating spot light, and later to exact an apology. The fountain has since been demoted to a flowerpot.
So goes my memories of fountains from exalted Rome and the world’s museums to Philly and back to Wyalusing, PA.
To view an in-depth video on Keeler's paintings of fountains- click on the link below.
"The Logan Fountain- Kiss"' Oil on canvas 36" x 40" This painting by Brian Keeler shows the sculptural ensemble in Philly by Alexander Calder, and in the background, City Hall with the statue of William Penn on top, sculpted by his father, also Alexander Calder.