Is it coincidence or the fact that the universe loves symmetry when, in 2018, Palm Beach artist Ralph Wolfe Cowan, portraitist to some of the world’s most celebrated and wealthy glitterati, died at the same time that portrait artist Serge Strosberg, who lived in New York City for more than a decade, relocated to Palm Beach?
Cowan’s career spanned seven decades, and over his life he painted the world’s wealthiest and worldly clients, including Prince Rainier III and Princess Grace of Monaco, Imelda Marcos and the Sultan of Brunei.
Strosberg, now living and working in Palm Beach, and an admirer of Cowan’s work, hopes to find a niche picking up where Cowan left off, perpetuating his traditions and painting some of the island’s most celebrated residents.
His latest show, featuring his portraits as well as his collaboration with New York City jewelry designer and artist David Mandel (StrosbergMandel), is at the Palm Beach Design Showroom, 500 N. Dixie Highway, in Lake Worth Beach and runs through March 9.
An admirer of Cowan and his work, Strosberg, who studied at the Académie Julian and the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, says, “I’d like to be as successful in Palm Beach as Cowan, while bringing something fresh, younger and more contemporary to portraiture.”
Indeed, using Old Master techniques he learned in Europe, Strosberg has an innate ability to capture his subjects’ emotions, expressions and essence that reveals not only their innermost being but as art adviser Diana Ewer says, “an honest reflection of the person that is known and portrayed in an entirely authentic way.”
Characterizing his style as “hyper-naturalist with a humanistic and sensible approach,” Strosberg says, “I strive to bring out the best in people’s souls and create a tribute to their life and humanity.”
This humanity is evident in the large canvas titled Quarantine, a portrait of Strosberg’s 4-year-old twin boys, Adam and Nikita. Wearing Russian sailor suits in the early-1900s style familiar from The Battleship Potemkin (his wife, Olga, is Russian), and blue-and-white caps imprinted with Russian insignias, the boys lean on the bow of a tempestuous sea, with Adam’s right hand on his brother’s shoulder in a gesture of comfort.
He captures a tenderness, sweetness and innocence in his young sons made all the more evident contrasted with the turmoil of the sea and sky surrounding them.
While expressing their humanity, Strosberg says the Norman Rockwell-esque painting created in oil and egg tempera on canvas, and completed during the second wave of COVID-19 in July and August 2020, can be viewed as a metaphor for living in the time of a pandemic, with the ocean waves alluding to the waves of the virus washing over us and the turbulent time we’re living in.
“However,” says Strosberg, “there is also an optimistic message for the next generation; the tide is turning and the storms and chaos will pass.”
His portrait of Palm Beach socialites Theresa Margaret and Michael Hammond, gracing their spiral staircase, she in a billowing blue and white flowered dress and he in his blue blazer and Stubbs & Wootton loafers, are so realistic as to resemble the cover of a Town & Country magazine.
Strosberg’s portrait of U.S. District Court Judge Daniel T.K. Hurley hangs in the federal courthouse in West Palm Beach.
In addition to the portraits, a number of pieces from the StrosbergMandel collaboration are on display in the designer’s lounge at the Showroom.
A larger-than-life portrait of his wife, Olga, inspired by Kandinsky and Russian constructivism, hangs alongside larger-than-life 3D depictions of rock n’ roll icons, Elvis Presley, Tom Petty and David Bowie from the Ziggy Stardust days and a 1960s-era Elizabeth Taylor (titled You Bet Your Ass They’re Real) replete with Swarovski crystal earrings, larger than her Hope diamond.
Bowie in Space depicts a young Bowie gazing into the distance, his eyes framed with glitter and embedded crystals, red feathered hair and a necklace of sea pods and Japanese glass orbs.
He’s framed by the Milky Way and encased in a upcycled steel frame emboldened with found objects.
The large-scale works (7’ x 6’ x 10”) are first painted by Strosberg then embellished by Mandel, a former jewelry designer for Swarovski who created wings for Victoria Secret fashion shows and couture jewelry for fashion designer Naeem Khan, with avant-garde materials such as Swarovski crystals, vintage fabrics, fur, found objects, and shards of colored glass that project a sense of surrealistic expressionism.
The collaboration is a commentary on popular culture and the idolatry that comes with it as well as with the quest to hold the ones we admire and love in eternal memory.
Influenced by Flemish painters such as Jan Van Eyck and German Renaissance portrait painter, Hans Holbein, Strosberg said the duo were aspiring to create a new form of portraiture.
“This partnership is a natural transition for my visual art and 30-year jewelry career,” says Mandel. “Serge brings the classical foundation upon which he continues to push the limits of his painting and I bring the 3-dimensional assemblage abilities to our collaboration.”
Their first collaboration, a 3D portrait of pop icon, Prince, was memorably completed the same day Strosberg’s twin sons were born in 2016. Their tribute to the singer, titled #Sexy, was shown at Satellite Miami 2016 and Scope N.Y. in 2017.
Strosberg says that as their collaboration continues to grow, and the work becomes more sophisticated and creative, the results are more tactile, original, exuberant and alive.
“We want to be innovative and create something new, a form of portraiture and still life that hasn’t been done before,” he says. “One that is dimensional, juxtaposing contemporary materials with old fashioned technique.”
“My ability to capture my subjects’ essence, combined with David’s capability to add dimension with original objects are what make StrosbergMandel pieces beautiful and unique,” Strosberg says.
“I’m excited to be living and working in Palm Beach and carrying on the storied history of the tradition of portraiture on the Island of Palm Beach,” he says.
The Palm Beach Design Showroom, 500 N. Dixie Hwy., Lake Worth Beach. Showroom hours: Tuesday-Saturday from 10 am – 6 pm. When visiting the showroom please follow COVID safety protocol. Masks are mandatory, temperature check at door and social distancing rules apply.
To commission a portrait, contact Celeste Jones. at firstname.lastname@example.org, 561-291-7015.