‘A Painting Is a Land without Laws’: Artist Jesse Mockrin on Old Masters

‘A Painting Is a Land without Laws’: Artist Jesse Mockrin on Old Masters

Known for her figurative paintings referencing the scenes and traditions of European Old Masters, Jesse Mockrin shares her thoughts on six highlights from the upcoming ‘Master Paintings’ auction at Sotheby’s
Known for her figurative paintings referencing the scenes and traditions of European Old Masters, Jesse Mockrin shares her thoughts on six highlights from the upcoming ‘Master Paintings’ auction at Sotheby’s
Jesse Mockrin. Photo by Sam Frost for Galerie Magazine. Courtesy the artist

T he Philadelphia-based artist Jesse Mockrin reframes Old Masters by examining works from the past within a contemporary context. Drawing inspiration from paintings produced in the 16th and 17th centuries, Mockrin often focuses on a particular detail or compositional passage and makes it the singular element of her composition. Her approach is thus rooted in both close visual examination and creative reconceptualization.

In her most recent body of work, “The Venus Effect,” Mockrin focuses on the art historical tradition of depicting women with mirrors, images that typically underscore Venus’s vanity and position the goddess as the object of observation, and desire. Mockrin, however, complicates this narrative by using mirrors to activate tacit dialogue and lend her figures a sense of agency. In Mockrin’s scenes, it is the women who do and control the looking.

JESSE MOCKRIN, The lover and the beloved, 2023. Oil on cotton, 72 x 84 in (182.9 x 213.4 cm) each, 72 x 168 in (182.9 x 426.8 cm) overall. © Jesse Mockrin 2024. Image courtesy the artist and James Cohan, New York. Photo by Martin Elder.

Sotheby’s specialist Kathryn Kremnitzer sat down with Mockrin to discuss some of the works that will be included in the upcoming Master Paintings auction on 22 May. Below are excerpts from their conversation in which Jesse discusses the works that most captivated her attention.

‘Crucifixion with the Madonna and Saints John the Evangelist and Mary Magdalene’

“What really gets me in this crucifixion scene are the streams of blood anointing Christ’s three most devout followers. There’s a cut in his side and some cuts from the nails, as well as some blood coming from his feet, and they all flow onto his followers’ heads. It’s great compositionally, but it’s also really gross. It’s so physical and so intense, but it also has a beautiful metaphorical symbolism: it suggests this idea that he’s sharing his teachings or blessing them in a very literal way.”

Paolo de Matteis, ‘Apollo and Daphne’

“I’ve been looking at a lot of Daphnes recently, because I’m going to make a work referencing her story. I don’t think I’ve seen any other ones set at nighttime like this one by Paolo de Matteis. The moon is the light source in this painting, illuminating the other three figures. Even though this is a mythological scene, it appears almost like a halo right behind Apollo’s head. I love the way Daphne’s transformation from body to tree is captured but also obscured in the darkness – laurel branches are sprouting from her fingertips. And then Peneus, the recumbent figure – does he have seaweed hair?”

‘Still Life with Medlars, a Chip-Wood Box, Butterflies and a Letter on a Marble Ledge’

“This is such a nice still life. I’m drawn to the trompe-l’oeil letter leaning over this marble-patterned table. The color palette is so neutral – there’s really only one color except for the blue and white butterflies – yet the light is really beautiful. I don’t paint many still lifes, but my last show had so many objects and table scenes that I relate to this painting more than, say, some landscapes. It’s so richly coded with meaning.”

‘Susanna and the Elders,’ Attributed to Vincent Sellaer

“I’ve also looked at many paintings of Susanna and the Elders. This one attributed to Vincent Sellaer seems rather modest compared to most. Usually Susanna is bare breasted while the elders tear at her clothes. In this painting, you can see her nipple through her sheer clothing, but comparatively she’s pretty covered up, her clothes are intact. The elders look like they are presenting her with a rational argument. I love Susanna’s face – so strange, so gorgeous. And my god, there’s so much happening in her hair! The hands are making these wonderful gestures that move your eye through the painting. The fountain is also full of incredible, bizarre detail.”

Giovanni Andrea Sirani, ‘Sibyl Reading a Book’

“I didn’t realize that Giovanni Andrea Sirani was the father and teacher of the painters Elisabetta, Barbara and Ana Maria Sirani. His portrait of Sibyl reading has such wonderful fabric. Her turban, the cloth behind her, the drapery, the cushion she’s sitting on – nearly the whole surface of the painting is fabric. I would make all my paintings this way if I could.”

Antonio Bellucci, ‘Samson and Delilah’

“Delilah’s hands are so beautiful in Antonio Bellucci’s Samson and Delilah. In one hand she holds scissors resting on top of Samson’s hand, and in the other a lock of his hair – it’s a very beautiful moment. Then there’s this weird, diagonal divide between the sky on the right-hand side of the painting and the darkness on the left. Is it a brick wall? Compositionally, it’s so bizarre. You can’t tell where the figures are and where the ground is. It feels baffling, unstable. Where are they? Where are Samson’s legs? What’s happening?

“But so what? A painting is a land without laws.”

Old Master Paintings

About the Author

More from Sotheby's

Stay informed with Sotheby’s top stories, videos, events & news.

Receive the best from Sotheby’s delivered to your inbox.

By subscribing you are agreeing to Sotheby’s Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe from Sotheby’s emails at any time by clicking the “Manage your Subscriptions” link in any of your emails.

arrow Created with Sketch. Back To Top