New Orleans artist Alan Flattmann has become recognized as one of the most influential and respected pastel artists in the country.
Over a career span of more than forty years, New Orleans painter Alan Flattmann has become recognized as one of the most influential and respected pastel artists in the country. He is a member of the Pastel Society of America’s Hall of Fame and the Masters Circle of the International Association of Pastel Societies. Equally comfortable working in oils and watercolors, he fills his work with the rich imagery of the many corners of the world he has visited. Though he travels widely, he always returns home to the French Quarter for renewed inspiration.
Flattman’s paintings create narrative images of place and time. “I am more a poet than a storyteller,” he said. “With vocabulary, a poet creates a symphony with words. I’m working with subject matter that really exists. Yet, I paint them in a way that I can use my vocabulary of paint, canvas, composition in such a way that I’m making a lyrical statement about it. I’m drawn to painting things that are not necessarily beautiful in the sense of a beautiful sunset or beautiful woman. I’m drawn to things I find have a sense of peace, of contentment, a sense of mood. That’s what I’m trying to do with my painting.”
Like several other well-known New Orleans artists of his time, Flattmann is a graduate of the John McCrady Art School in the French Quarter, where he studied from 1964 to 1967. After high school, he considered studying art in college but decided to continue on at McCrady’s, where he had taken art lessons on Saturdays during his senior year. He liked McCrady’s avoidance of trendy shortcuts and his emphasis on classical training in art. To help pay tuition, Flattmann applied for a scholarship the school gave each year to the most promising new student. Most years the school awarded only one, but 1964 was unusual. Unable, or unwilling, to decide between two final candidates, the school awarded scholarships to Flattmann and Henry Casselli, another budding young New Orleans artist who would go on to national acclaim.
At first, Flattmann had visions of a career in commercial art, but while in art school he came to the conclusion that painting “labels on cans” was not for him. He wanted to be a serious artist. “Painting something beautiful has a great deal of satisfaction,” he said. “Painting is an emotional statement that affects other people. When I discovered that I could have an effect on other people, that they were pleased or they felt the experience that I put down on canvas, that in itself is why I wanted to do it. The act of painting is what gives me a reason for existence. If for some reason I could no longer make a living from painting, I don’t know what I’d do.”
While attending the John McCrady school, Flattmann earned extra money on Jackson Square in the French Quarter by painting tourists’ portraits. After finishing his schooling, he did not return to the square. At first he painted French Quarter street scenes, the neighborhood’s decaying nineteenth-century buildings, port workers along the riverfront, and tradespeople in the French Market. In 1967, Flattmann returned to the John McCrady school intermittently to teach classes. The young artist continued to teach at the school until it closed in 1983.
In addition to McCrady, other artists left their marks on Flattmann. Names such as Rembrandt, James Whistler, John Singer Sargent, Édouard Manet, George Inness, John Constable, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, and Edgar Degas rolled off his tongue as he explained the lessons he has learned from the masters. “I liked the way Whistler worked with paint, the way he scraped his colors down and added color back again,” he said.
Until 1968, Flattmann’s art experiences were confined to art history books, magazines, and exhibitions at the New Orleans Museum of Art. That year, he visited the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. “I walked into this room of Rembrandts, I flipped out,” he said. “[Rembrandt] created a reality within that canvas that has a life of its own. You can live in them, breathe in them. I then realized how powerful a statement a painter can really make. All those impressions had a big effect on me and the way I work. They became my hero figures—not great politicians or great soldiers, but great artists.”
During those early years, the more Flattmann worked in the French Quarter and south Louisiana, the more he searched for work scenes unspoiled by modern mechanization. Sugarcane fields became mechanized, eliminating the need for knife-wielding cane cutters. Gangs of longshoremen and roustabouts, once common along the Mississippi River wharves, have given way to forklifts, shipping containers, and other more efficient ways to unload cargo vessels. Flattmann sought out the last of these laborers.
The fascination with nineteenth-century New Orleans drew Flattmann to the Caribbean, where progress in a tropical climate was less accelerated. In 1973, with glimpses of Winslow Homer’s exotic nineteenth-century West Indian islands burned into his imagination, and a large grant in hand, the twenty-seven-year-old artist and his wife, Becky, traveled to Barbados to search for and paint scenes evoking a vanishing New Orleans and south Louisiana. The cane fields, the plantations, the fishermen who pulled in their nets by hand, resembled a bygone Louisiana.
Since 1968, Flattmann has conducted painting workshops around the United States, as well as in the Caribbean, Europe, the Middle East, and Latin America, all the while collecting images for his own work. The French Quarter, however, remains a primary source for his works, though he was ambivalent about its role in his emerging portfolio. “I have always loved painting old architecture and the Quarter certainly has a lot of that,” he said. “And I’ve always loved painting people and characters and the Quarter certainly has its share of those, too. Then it really struck me around 1996 that I had always used the Quarter as a fallback, but it really had a deeper meaning to me. I was always looking for this grand subject and realized that it was under my nose all along. I was painting around it but resisted painting the Quarter by itself in fear of being called a ‘French Quarter artist.’”
The resulting works reveal that lifelong adoration of his native town. Flattmann views his paintings of the Vieux Carré as documents, recording people, places, and things, perhaps as he would like to see them. It is a place that is constantly changing, and not always to his liking. “There was excitement in the air back then,” he once said, recalling the French Quarter during his days at the John McCrady school in the 1960s. “It has lost its character. Today, part of the old farmer’s market is a flea market. It is the same flea market you’d see if you went to Mexico or some parts of Europe. It doesn’t have any New Orleans character to it at all. That’s lost and that’s a shame.”
In 2006 the Pastel Society of America inducted Flattmann into its Hall of Fame, an honor given to only one artist each year. The following year, he became a Master Circle Honoree of The International Association of Pastel Societies (IAPS) and, that same year, won the Gold Award at the IAPS Tenth International Exhibit. In 2001 he won first place for landscape in the inaugural Pastel Artist International Magazine Awards for World-Wide Excellence. In 2004 he won Best of Show in the Eight Biennial National Exhibition of the Pastel Society of North Florida. The mayor of New Orleans officially proclaimed September 28, 2002, as Alan Flattmann Day in recognition of his masterful paintings of the French Quarter. In 1996 he received the American Artist Art Masters Award for pastel teacher, and in 1991 the Master Pastelist distinction by the Pastel Society of America. He has been listed in Who’s Who in American Art since 1981.
Flattmann’s paintings can be found in hundreds of private and corporate collections around the world. His work is in the permanent collections of the New Orleans Museum of Art and Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans; the Oklahoma Arts Center in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; the Longview Museum of Art in Texas; the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson; and the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art in Laurel, Mississippi.