New Orleans painter Henry Casselli is one of the most highly regarded watercolorists in the nation.
Ohen art historians and critics describe Henry Casselli’s paintings,they invariably turn to Andrew Wyeth, Winslow Homer, Mary Cassatt, Edgar Degas, John Singer Sargent, or Thomas Eakins for comparison. Those influences are there, but all agree his paintings have a sense of the human spirit uniquely his own. It is a style that was born on the battlefields of Vietnam and has since traveled from the launchpad of the space shuttle Columbia at Cape Canaveral to the White House and his official portrait of President Ronald Reagan. Along the way, he has become one of the most highly regarded watercolorists in the nation.
Born in New Orleans on October 25, 1946, Casselli’s list of prestigious awards is long and his paintings hang in impressive collections, including the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, the Marine Corps Museum in Triangle, Virginia, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) art collection, and the New Orleans Museum of Art. Portraits of President Reagan, Mohammed Ali, and astronauts John Young, Robert Crippen, and John Glenn are among his best-known works. Even the Wall Street Journal and Money magazine have mentioned Casselli prominently in articles on art as investments.
A constant refrain emerges from Çaselli’s paintings—a haunting emotionalism, whether the painting is of a young African American girl holding a doll, an astronaut suiting up for his flight, or a ballet dancer poised with every muscle and limb outstretched waiting for the next strain of music. He talks about his work in terms of personal experiences and as vehicles for an inner, unexplainable expression. Faces in his paintings are unsmiling and often looking away. Subjects in his paintings seem introspective, pensive, almost sad. Yet they glow against dark, often abstract backgrounds. His paintings have a lyrical grace that demands attention.
Andrew Wyeth is the name most associated with Casselli’s paintings. “Maybe because we both do watercolors,” Casselli suggested in a magazine interview. “From time to time, Wyeth also paints black people. Obviously, I don’t paint the same subject matter. And they also see I don’t give much importance to color. I think there’s this crazy abstract and unexplainable emotion in our work.”
Casselli believes he found that emotion and distinctive artistic voice in Vietnam, where he served from late 1967 through 1968 as the Marine Corps’ first combat artist. Ironically, prior to joining the Marines, he gave up an appointment to West Point to study art in a small art school in New Orleans’s French Quarter. After fourteen months wandering from one battle and firebase to the next, including the 1968 Tet Offensive, he produced 680 sketches and paintings of individual soldiers and the horror of combat. Many were published in the Corps’ magazine, Leatherneck. “I learned how to cry out there, how to hurt,” he once said in a magazine interview. “I learned how to express my feelings. I was fortunate; I had a piece of paper to put it down. Lots of those guys couldn’t do that. It changed the art. I started finding my own way of scribbling during the war. It’s coming right from the gut and scribbled on the page. Once on a medevac (Operation Napoleon) and I literally stuck my hand into red paint and smeared it to indicate the blood and the guts of this mad human rush to get this wounded marine out. It says all I need to say. It says it all to me.”
In 1981 two other major events helped shape his career. The first was a portrait of Muhammad Ali on the eve of his title fight with Larry Holmes. The second was with John Young and Robert Crippen, astronauts in the first flight of the space shuttle Columbia.
Ali was so impressed by a painting Casselli had done of African Americans that he wanted the artist to paint his portrait. The result, Cat’s Cradle, is remarkable. Ali stands at the center of the painting in his boxing trunks with hands outstretched, playing the child’s string game cat’s cradle. His upper body, hands, and pensive face, reflecting a faint light somewhere beyond the viewer’s view, are buried in a background of rich browns, black, and burnt umber.
Casselli’s connection with the NASA art program began in 1978, when the program’s director saw the artist’s paintings in a Washington, D.C., gallery. In 1981, he invited the young New Orleans artist to join a team of artists, including Robert Rauschenberg, who would capture various images of the Columbia space shuttle mission. At first, Casselli wasn’t interested in “painting rockets,” but he relented when he learned he would focus on Young and Crippen. Perhaps the most remarkable work to come from this project was Casselli’s sketch and painting of Young, When Thoughts Turn Inward. In 1998, NASA officials invited only Casselli to capture John Glenn’s preflight moments for the veteran astronaut’s heralded return to space at age seventy-seven aboard the space shuttle Discovery. The finished portrait is titled Suiting Up. “When he put that space suit on, he became very, very quiet,” Casselli said, referring to the portrait. “Here’s the Marine, getting ready to go out on a mission. This is serious business. He was going out on a mission and that’s what I went after. I could have done a front portrait of him, but this is a portrait of the moment.”
Casselli was NASA’s first choice for the Glenn mission, said Bert Ulrich, curator of NASA’s National Art Program. “It’s really wonderful,” he said, describing Suiting Up. “Glenn almost looks prayerful. In some ways you see he is an older man. Casselli has this real beauty in his paintings. He just grabs something. He’s reached a level that’s been rarely reached in the collection that we work with, especially in the human spirit. There’s something in his paintings that capture some common human element, something very reflective that makes people stop. People stand in front of that painting and just look at it.”
Casselli’s odyssey to the White House and the inner circle of Ronald and Nancy Reagan began when the First Lady’s aide saw a Casselli portrait in New York. After three and a half days alone with Reagan in the Oval Office, Casselli came away with thirty study drawings and a personal journal filled with private thoughts that later helped capture the feelings and the emotion he wanted in the portrait. “I truly loved him when I left after three days,” Casselli says.
He recalls that “awkward” moment when he delivered the portrait to the White House and nervously unwrapped it in front of Mrs. Reagan. To this day, he is thrilled by her words. “Ah! That’s my husband. I just love it.” The president gave his approval. “‘Yep!’ he said, rocking his head from side to side in his characteristic way. ‘That’s the Old Buckaroo!’” The portrait now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
Like many other New Orleans artists, including Alan Flattmann and Rolland Golden, Casselli was a student of the acclaimed New Orleans art teacher and regionalist painter John McCrady from 1964 to 1967. Casselli has given credit to his early training at McCrady’s French Quarter art school. “Mr. McCrady was an important influence in establishing the basics,” wrote Casselli. “Then there was Winslow Homer for simplicity; John Singer Sargent for fluidity; Robert Motherwell for freedom, mass and the pure joy of pushing paint around; and Kathe Kollwitz, the great draftsman and conductor of lights and darks.”
Since the early 1960s, Casselli has received numerous national awards and honors and has show in his work in scores of exhibitions across the nation. In November 2000, the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) held a midcareer retrospective titled Henry Casselli: Master of the American Watercolor. In 2007, NOMA featured Casselli’s work in another one-artist show, Really Beautiful: Henry Casselli Drawings, Sketches and Watercolor Pre-studies, that featured seventy-six drawings and sketches selected from the 224-piece collection purchased by NOMA. The collection spanned Casselli’s four-decade career. The strength of this show, however, was not in past work, but in his drawings and imaginary scenes of frightened and desperate Hurricane Katrina survivors in New Orleans, surrounded by destruction and putrid floodwaters. Casselli is the recipient of the American Watercolor Society’s Silver Medal of Honor in 1986 and the society’s Gold Medal of Honor in 1987.