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 Betty Banks Herbert  (1929 - )

About: Betty Banks Herbert


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Lived/Active: Virginia      Known for: abstract architectural and European history, ancestral theme painting

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Biography from Childs Gallery:
From a recent exhibition at Childs Gallery, "Betty Herbert: America's Wars"

Primarily self-taught, Herbert channels a war correspondent's on-scene intimacy in her expressionistic evocative paintings that capture the heart and heat of battle. Herbert draws inspiration from critical moments in America's history - in this case war and national celebration-and creates works of art that are highly personal interpretations of those events.

The Historial de la Grande Guerre, France's World War I museum in Pèronne, has few works of modern art in its permanent collection. But the oft-visited institution made an exception for Betty Herbert's visceral paintings and sculptures honoring the multinational troops who fought and died in the Great War. At the opening of Herbert's exhibition in 2008, museum curator Marie-Pascale PrŽvost Bault said of the then 79-year-old artist, "The power of her work resides in the fact that she does not hide her subject behind style. With rapid strokes, she highlights the soldiers' sacrifice, the battle's violence, the artillery fire, as if she had lived through them."

And therein lies the magic of Herbert's highly personal oeuvre. The folk art portraits of war are intimate and affecting not through any first-hand experience, but because Herbert is so moved by the bravery, valor, and horrors of battle. Though each of her War Series has its own signature look and color palette, the little moments of tender humanity are consistent throughout.

It was the pain of her husband's becoming seriously ill that led Herbert to first pick up a paintbrush at age 54 to give her life a renewed sense of purpose. A local teacher showed her how to work with oils, then she feverishly began to paint alone at home.

Encouraged by the results, Herbert spent a month working alongside many talented artists at the respected Vermont Studio Center. Her final critique was a simple sentence: "Just keep on painting," as her teachers feared academic training might discourage Herbert's spontaneity, raw emotion, and bold coloration, with little regard for conventional perspective or representation.

"Subjects were free thrown from my head without conscious awareness of what I was doing. Images appeared whenever I looked into the canvas as though already there and I simply revealed them gladly."

After her husband's death, Herbert began what would become a series of paintings focusing on Americans at war. "I have a real ability to feel empathy for people who are suffering. I wanted to do something to remind people of that," she says solemnly.

Her first subject was World War I. Herbert's ancestors actually once owned a home on the site of the Historial de la Grande Guerre museum in France, where prophetically, her work would soon be on permanent display. "I took a trip there. It was indescribably horrible what went on in the trenches - soldiers seeing their mates and unable to reach them, the moaning and yelling."

Completely different in feeling is Herbert's exuberant treatment of the Revolutionary War, with many celebrated battles having been fought near her hometown of Norfolk, Virginia.

"I think there's more of a sense of playfulness in the Revolutionary War paintings because I knew we won," says the lifelong Southerner. "It's been so glorious. We stood up to such a strong nation.

"In contrast World War I destroyed generations of the French and British. It took so much out of Europe, like pumping blood out of a corpse. And it set up the need of the Germans for World War II."

But alongside the brilliantly hued canvases of epic Revolutionary battles are smaller moments, like Washington Slept Here (2002,) showing the General undressing near his makeshift cot. "He slept in no real bed for six years," says Herbert. "I tried to humanize Washington while he was vulnerable."

Humanizing the unthinkable is what Herbert does best in her paintings of more recent conflagrations, such as 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Once again, there are snapshots of normalcy amidst the horror, such as troops playing Baseball in the Desert (2005,) or an American soldier casually napping on Saddam's Sofa (2003) in the fallen dictator's abandoned palace.

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