In a life guided by a “shoot for the moon but expect to land in the mud” kind of philosophy, Tigard artist Alex LaFollette’s “what do I have to lose?” attitude has opened the doors of one of the most revered art institutions on the planet.
The 31-year-old, self-taught artist has landed a coveted permit to paint inside the Louvre, copying Leonardo DaVinci’s final work, Saint John the Baptist, in person at Paris’s sprawling world-renowned museum next month.
“When I first got the news, I cried like a baby. I was so overcome,” LaFollette said. “I never thought that they were going to give me the permit and say yes to this.”
The tradition of young artists taking-up residency to recreate the work of their predecessors as a learning exercise dates to the Louvre’s opening in 1793, a time when the museum also offered living quarters in addition to the easels and stools it still provides today.
“The Louvre is the book in which we learn to read,” French impressionist Paul Cezanne once said.
Like Lafollette, thousands of emerging artists, including Cezanne, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Vincent Van Gough, Edgar Degas and Édouard Manet, have all spent time as Louvre copyists.
Anyone can apply, but the 3-month permit is granted to just 150 people annually, with an average wait time of more than a year for successful applicants to have a space.
Once inside, copyists park in front of their pre-determined paintings, working for up to four hours a day, while other museum-goers watch over their shoulders and move freely around them. Their finished works are displayed briefly beside the original, then relinquished to them.
LaFollette, who paints abstracts focused on the balance of color and shapes, and cartoon images like a recent series of gnomes pulled from a childhood memory, plans to spend his hours interpreting Davinci’s painting in his own style rather than attempting to recreate it literally.
“What I’m going to do is three separate paintings on a smaller scale,” he said. “One will be more of a true depiction of the outline of Saint John the Baptist. One will be more of an outline, but a little blurry, and the other a total abstraction, so you have this progression.”
The choice was partly informed by his style, and partly dictated by tight time constraints.
Like all modern copyists, LaFollette was granted 3-months to complete his work, but he had only one day to devote to the effort.
“We’re only going to be there for a limited time, so I decided to do a limited series,” he said.
By we, he means him and his wife, Erin, who will be in Paris together for eight nights celebrating a delayed Honeymoon.
When he applied on a whim, as an afterthought to the already planned trip, he was so certain the museum would reject his query he didn’t tell anyone – not even Erin – about the application.
“I figured why bother,” he said. It was such a long shot.
LaFollette is relatively new to painting, with a series of quick successes already under his belt.
He first grabbed a paintbrush in his mid-20s after a lifetime of nerding out on art and art history, then sold his first painting – the first one he ever made – days after completing it.
Though his work has made its way into shows at Portland Art Museum, the New Hampshire Museum of Fine Art, and several galleries, the prospect of copying DaVinci in the Louvre is a bit surreal.
“I asked (the museum) if I could do DaVinci’s Saint John the Baptist because my thinking is always ‘go big or just don’t do it at all,” he said. “Otherwise, what’s the point? And it doesn’t hurt to ask. I figured the worst thing they could do is they would respond and say, ‘we actually hate your art, and we’re blocking this email. If that’s the worst thing that could happen, I’m going to be okay.”
When the shock of not only being accepted, but also being bumped to the front of the line so his museum time would align with his trip, LaFollette panicked at the prospect.
“I’m not Davinci. Why would they pick me? I paint gnomes,” he told his wife. “She said: ‘They don’t want you to be Leonardo. They want your rendition of Leonardo,’ and that calmed me down,” he said.
To maximize his short face-to-face time painting in Paris, LaFollette is doing plenty of homework before leaving Tigard. He’s made and chucked countless sketches, getting a feel for the painting’s lines, and he’s spoken with three of the world’s preeminent Davinci scholars to deepen his insight.
“It’s been surreal,” he said. “I’m grateful to everyone who’s come on board to say: ‘we’ll help out this totally unknown guy who lives in Tigard, Oregon.’”