Fred Wessel loves working with the gold leaf medium.

“A friend of mine hates gold leaf,” said Wessel. “He likens it to working with dandruff and butterfly wings. You can not have a whisper of breeze or it will blow away. And egg tempera also requires infinite patience. Painting with it is like spinning cobwebs of colors; I build up the surface with tiny multiple strokes, one on top of another. But in spite of the problems, I feel right at home using almost forgotten materials.”

Gold leaf and egg tempera are two mediums that Wessel often works in because he loves the challenge. They were both popular among artists in the Italian Renaissance, a period that focused on the beauty of the human being. It was the influential Renaissance poet, Petrarch, who ushered in the philosophical movement called Humanism. This philosophy embraced values incorporating individualism and human ability in the pursuit of knowledge. These edicts were to be learned through the studies of the honorable Romans and Greeks of antiquity. This reference to classical history was the spirit of the Renaissance.

During this era, the development of the Italian self-portrait emerged beside the interest in the creative capacities of the individual. Wessel’s “Self Portrait Cortona,” a major painting in his one-man show, recalls these Humanist ideals. Wessel’s ambiguous smile, combined with his thick, graying beard, suggest that he is aware of these humanistic pursuits of intelligence and the focus on the human individual. His style reminds one of the “Mona Lisa” by Leonardo da Vinci.

The craggy cliffs and moody, stratified clouds behind Wessel exemplify the strength of his image in the composition. The use of muted hues in this Italian landscape exudes the temperament of a reflective and wise man. Wessel’s confidence in this self-portrait seems to withstand the unpredictable turn of events ushered in by nature. Many of Wessel’s showpieces are influenced by altarpieces and icon paintings of the Italian Renaissance. Although this contemporary artist does not preach a particular religious belief, he does elude to an overall spirituality. Frontal and three-quarter views were standard depictions of the serious and rigid figures of early Italian religious art. However, Wessel incorporates his modern interpretation into an icon piece in his “Molleye Gazing Back.” He paints a family friend, Molleye, exposing her back while she casually turns her head over her shoulder to glance at the viewer. Molleye, also a dancer, is depicted in a casual and relaxed position, a modern twist to past altarpiece themes. Wessel also pushes toward simplicity in his recent pieces. His simplicity is perhaps achieved by his use of a balanced and harmonious composition, much like the compositions mastered by Raphael.

Like Raphael, Wessel achieves a degree of poised unity in his subjects. Many viewers are intrigued by Wessel’s paintings, silverpoint figure studies, and graphite pieces, as they are extremely centralizedand formal. His piece entitled “Turkish Scarf” exhibits a young woman absorbed in her own daydream while gazing meditatively at a tiger lily. Inspired by the great Renaissance Masters, the direction of her gaze and the positioning of her head and arms create a pyramidal and centralized format. The opulent background reflects this ideal design format and produces an unidentifiable, yet intimate, atmosphere of warmth and security.

“There's a visual truth in Italy’s great paintings that has profoundly changed me and my art,” states Wessel.

Wessel hopes that the viewer of his paintings can also achieve this visual truth by observing his works. The focus on the elegance of the female figure recalls the Renaissance artistic ideal of glorifying nature, and the beauty of the human figure. Some of Wessel’s female figures are dressed in opulent medieval gowns that create an enchanting, classical look. Not only did the artist create these figures in a Raphael–like distinguished beauty, each female figure seems to have a distinct disposition that is tangible to the viewer. The sublime grace and dignity, innocent expressions, and relaxed deposition, became characteristics of an attractive Renaissance woman. These personality components create a silent conversation of understanding between the viewer and the female figure studies.

Some of Wessel’s showpieces are smaller than his past works, especially with his figural studies. These smaller works shine like precious gems among the larger compositions. An intimate relationship between the painting and the viewer is established, and the viewer can only feel in awe of their beauty and involved detail. In the Renaissance, many artists were influenced by the Neo–Platonicnotion that one attains a degree of enlightenment through the ardent and sincere pursuit of beauty. Renaissance Masters such as Raphael Sanzio and Michelangelo Buonarroti were deeply influenced by these Neo–Platonic aspirations. Thus, through their art, they attempted to convey a human life dedicated to the ideal elements of love, beauty and grace through their work. Similarly, through Wessel’s use of warm tones and the rendering of the youth's graceful hair and lovely expression, one is reminded of these Renaissance Neo–Platonic objectives.

Sherry French, 2001