When Italy’s fabled Doria Pamphilj family set out to have a portrait painted in 2012, their choice of artist was sure to bring someone into rarefied company. As Roman aristocrats and custodians of one of Italy’s most lavish palazzos – as well as a vast art collection including works by the likes of Caravaggio, Raphael, and Velázquez – their portrait was something for the annals of art history. For this plum commission, they turned to softly-spoken Irish painter Michelle Rogers – now the subject of an exhibition at New York’s Jenn Singer Gallery.
For an artist who now splits her time between dense urban areas – Rome and New York – her work might seem surprisingly Arcadian. But even though her paintings evoke some kind of distant wilderness untouched by human hands, she finds the settings closer to home. With Garden in the Forest, for example, she painted her subject at the Pool, a small pond in Central Park just steps away from the busy Central Park West thoroughfare. For others in the collection, she painted in Rome’s Orto Botanico.
Beyond the sites themselves, Rogers references landscapes she has experienced over her life. 'The greenness is very Irish,' she says. 'And the soil in Ireland is a dark black,' she adds, pointing to the tones that tend to dominate the canvas. The terracotta hues and the contrast between light and dark she attributes to her time in Italy. She renders human bodies – often shirtless young men – with a flesh color inspired by her extensive studies of Caravaggio.
A committed environmentalist, Rogers has an explicit point to make through her work. 'If we continue distancing ourselves from nature, we’ll be headed for something very bad,' she says. With that in mind, she will be exhibiting work at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris this December. 'It’s so important for artists and creative types to participate in that dialogue,' she says. Even with this strong point of view, she connects people with nature in subtle ways – through the shadow of a leaf on someone’s face or the reflection of a human body on the surface of a pond. All of this she does with one thing in mind: 'I’m trying to get people back to nature.'