64 Parishes

Spring 2017

A Master of Place

First major retrospective of James Michalopoulos opens at Ogden

Published: March 1, 2017
Last Updated: September 17, 2018

Stroll along the streets of the Vieux Carré and you will notice a few things: iron-laced balconies, lush tropical courtyards hidden behind nineteenth-century gates, and a particular New Orleans artist’s work showcased or mimicked in window after window along the cobblestoned streets. James Michalopoulos’ rhythmic paintings of New Orleans street scenes, houses, musicians, and cars are as synonymous with the city as paintings can be. The energy in each piece evokes the same electricity felt on evenings in Jackson Square, afternoons along Magazine Street, or midnights on Frenchmen Street. The artwork lends itself to a kind of synesthesia—the vibrancy of the colors and vibrations of the knifework are their own kind of jazz, pushing the viewer to move with the art.


We Groovin by James Michalopolous, 2014, oil on canvas, collection of the artist.

Waltzing the Muse: the Paintings of James Michalopoulos opened at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art on March 1, 2017. The first major retrospective of Michalopoulos’ career, the exhibition covered more than thirty-five years of the artist’s work, ranging from his paintings of the urban landscape of New Orleans and the people that reside there to his most recent work depicting the rural Mâconnais district in the south of France, offering great insight into his motivation and his mastery of color and composition.

A northern expat from Pittsburgh, with a BFA from Bowdoin College, Michalopoulos began his career in New Orleans as one of the many familiar faces that frequent Jackson Square. He quickly moved beyond the artist-flooded square and began exploring the streets of downtown New Orleans on his Vespa, with an easel and a portable radio tuned to WWOZ by his side. His style of painting—en plein air, thick layers of paint, with broad strokes of his palette knife—quickly created fans. He has been chosen as the official artist for the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival six times, and Gambit declared him “Best Artist of the Year” eight times. As Bradley Sumrall, Ogden’s Curator of the Collection, states, “Michalopoulos is [now] easily one of the most recognizable figures in contemporary painting in the South.”

“For more than thirty years, James Michalopoulos has painted the world around him, both natural and constructed, with a skillful hand and a masterful control of color,” Sumrall continues. “Waltzing the Muse showcases some of the best of that work, exploring the themes, techniques, and motivation behind one of the South’s most celebrated painters.”

Housed in the top floor galleries of the Ogden, the exhibition followed the divide of Michalopoulos’ three main subject matters: the people of New Orleans, the city’s urban landscape, and the rural landscape of his adopted French home. While varied in nature, these pieces tell the story of the artist and the spirit of the places where he lives. Exaggerated forms, distorted angles, generous amounts of paint, and a unique yet commanding use of color breathe life into each piece. At times you see in his paintings the markings of others—Van Gogh in the movement, Rutenberg in the color, Cézanne in the angles, or Pollock in the layers—but the style is all his, and his city’s, own.

To best experience the painting, a viewer should place herself in the moment, imagine the scene, hear the jazz from the radio, feel the heat coming up from the sidewalk, smell the bourbon and beignets of the Quarter, and taste the city, its music, its history, its color. Waltzing the Muse: The Paintings of James Michalopoulos is an exhibition of the senses and an experience everyone should have the chance to encounter.


Dark Horse by James Michalopoulos, 2014, 0il on canvas, collection of the artist.

Waltzing the Muse: The Paintings of James Michalopoulos was on view at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, 925 Camp Street, from March 1 to July 16, 2017. Presenting sponsors were Henry and Pat Shane. There was an opening reception at the museum on Saturday, March 11, from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m.


Miriam Taylor is the communications manager for the Ogden Museum of Southern Art.