Portrait Mode

How a painter embodies and revises the historical female muse.

Danielle Orchard

In Tennis Lesson, an oil painting by Danielle Orchard (B.F.A. ’09, Fine Arts), two women lounge across a deep-green expanse the color of crushed velvet. The scene is figurative but flattened à la Cubism, natural forms cut into color blocks: pale blue, rich peach, a golden shoulder. Though the female figures are dressed in classic American sportswear, they hold no rackets. Instead, one woman palms a beer bottle, the other a cigarette, their white skirts hiked carelessly above their thighs. They stare out of the frame, but their gazes don’t rest on the viewer. They are beyond even leisure, engrossed in a moment that’s intimate, irreverent, and ultimately inscrutable. Yet unlike the classical art muses they reference, their sphinxlike moment belongs to them.

“Depictions of women in painting can seem remote, but by borrowing the same gestures, I try to make them deeply introspective,” says Orchard, a 34-year-old Brooklyn-based artist. “Playing with existing moods and viewers’ expectations can suggest an unconsidered interior life.”

Beyond the canvas, Orchard and I are two women volleying a conversation via satellite. It’s six weeks into national quarantine when we speak over the phone, and there’s an appropriate irony to the conditions of the interview: each of us alone in our private rooms, cut off from sharing a space together. We can’t even meet each other’s gaze in a videoconference; Orchard’s studio has spotty Wi-Fi.

So, she describes her studio in East New York in words: a converted single-floor church with high ceilings, increasingly paint-splattered concrete floors (“I’m getting slightly nervous about my deposit,” she jokes), and plentiful, if diffuse, light. A fellow painter renovated the space, and he expanded the doorframes because he understood firsthand the challenge of moving large canvases. This detail mirrors Orchard’s work: an artist’s embodied empathy that results in slight but profound shifts.

Two paintings by Danielle Orchard: on the left, "Bra Strap" and, on the right, "Garden Eclipse." Both are painted on canvas in oils.

Orchard has gained renown for her large, bright scenes of languid women that mingle abstraction and figuration. The New York Times described the “discreetly topsy-turvy radicalism” of her first solo exhibition as “impressive,” and she’s represented by respected galleries in New York and Copenhagen. Her repeated symbols are recognizable but personal: a half-empty wine bottle, a durational cigarette, a tulip bending in a vase.

“I think of the figures in very abstract terms, but the women themselves are amalgamations of myself: self-portraiture grafted onto art historical references, women familiar to us from painting history blended with contemporary and personal narrative.”

The female figures recall those of Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Max Beckmann, and others — and this effect is deliberate.

“I’m interested in artistic lineage, how artists reference one another across time, like Picasso referencing Velásquez, referencing Ingres — the telescoping nature of art,” she says.

Yet the imagistic echoes are intended as neither tribute nor rebuttal. The relationship between Orchard’s 21st century work and the male Fauves, Cubists, and Expressionists is more akin to a revealing conversation.

“I think about my position as a woman painter making this type of imagery, about how I can access lived memory through painting,” she says. “For example, a line, which was created by a man like Matisse, was borrowed from a woman’s body, so it’s more familiar to me from a lived position than from a painted one. It’s that back-and-forth between representation and lived experience that I think about all the time.”

Orchard recalls a 1913 painting by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Toilette, Frau vor dem Spiegel, in which a woman sits before a mirror while reaching her arms up and behind her back.

“It looked to me like she was adjusting her bra strap, a discomfort that mostly women understand,” she says. “And in that boudoir setting where there’s no problems and effortless sexuality.”

In her painting inspired by Kirchner, Orchard makes explicit the physical awkwardness of the gesture, even titling it Bra Strap. She was surprised when only women shared an understanding of the narrative.

“I’m interested in male painters’ guesswork, where they were able to locate empathy, and maybe what they left out,” she says. “How the figure can be complicated by a woman approaching it in a contemporary context.”

Though she’s looking inward and backward to draw forth these scenes, the paintings always begin with the paint itself.

“I think of these characters as emerging from the material,” she says. “The liquid nature, the way one builds space and form with oils, a color, a line moved across a canvas — that determines the ultimate shape of these characters and what they’re doing.”

Orchard in her New York studio.

Orchard describes herself primarily as “a painter rather than an artist,” with a fealty to the medium of oil she gleaned in IU’s art program.

Raised in Fort Wayne, Ind., a middle child in a large family, Orchard engaged with art as a strategy for solitude, for carving out a space for herself. She moved to Bloomington in 2004 to attend IU — by her own admission, without much thought. But she found much more on campus: a different culture within state lines and a fine arts program that made her see a future in painting.

“I felt really lucky to fall into that program,” she says.

At the end of their first year, students who want to enroll in the B.F.A. must show their work and interview for a position in the program. That high standard told the young painter that “art is a serious endeavor that you can fail at — even spectacularly,” she says. “That really stuck with me: the sense that painting was as legitimate as any other human activity.”

Orchard credits much of this wonder and commitment to working with artist Barry Gealt, a professor emeritus who taught at IU for nearly 40 years. Early in her college career, Orchard traveled on Gealt-organized study trips to Florence, Italy, and Giverny, France.

“He’s a very tenacious guy,” she says. “He was always getting us into places where we probably shouldn’t be. A group of us stayed in Monet’s house, where they made our meals and brought us crates of wine while we drew and painted in rural France.”

In addition to passionate faculty and immersive adventures, Orchard remembers clearly the rigor of the program. The focus was on painting from observation and “how to see color,” she says.

“It was super technical — and I learned in grad school that many people don’t know how to stretch a canvas or mix a good green — but that was never presented as separate from the conceptual aspect of art.”

So, did she ever go through a “rebellious” non-oil-painting phase?  

“No, I didn’t,” she laughs. “Painting has always been so difficult that I never felt like I could put it down. I’m never bored, and it’s always regenerative.”

She did take figurative sculpture classes, which she credits with how she navigates space in paintings today.

“We didn’t end up firing any of the work. We didn’t get to keep it,” she says. “You just make it and then you crush it, which is a way to not be too precious, and to institute a workhorse mentality. As a painter, you’re going to make so much bad work, and it’s important to be able to see that as in service of something good later on.”

"After Eden," painted on canvas in oils.

When not in class at IU, Orchard worked in a bookstore, as a server at Lennie’s, and as a nude model for life-drawing sessions.

“It was weird because I was also in class with these same students, and then I was naked in front of them in another class,” she says. “It was an interesting triangle between observing and being observed and trying to translate myself mentally into the drawings I imagined they were making.”

Then Orchard began to organize the figure-drawing sessions herself, which had never been run by students before. She hired the models and opened the sessions to the public.

“It became a place where I could dictate everything: the nature of the pose, color, light. This was my space,” Orchard says. “Figure drawing has been really formative, and I think being on both sides of it — this reflective viewing — is still in the work. I pull on those memories a lot.”

Many of Orchard’s subjects are nude, sometimes while picnicking but sometimes in more traditionally private occupations. When I ask about the bathing figures in her paintings, Orchard recalls hazy Bloomington summers, breaking into the city’s private pools and visiting the quarries with friends.

“I haven’t thought about the quarries in so long, but there’s something about them that I want in my work,” she says. “There’s that natural drama, but tempered by human trashiness.”

For her post-Bloomington plans, Orchard applied and was accepted to Hunter College’s “massively interdisciplinary” program in New York after a road trip organized by Professor Caleb Weintraub. At the end of the M.F.A., she won a grant from the Motherwell/Dedalus Foundation, which sling-shot her through the first difficult transition year from school into the artist’s life in New York. She got involved as a curator with an art collective called Underdonk, worked at the Spotted Pig restaurant, and kept painting.

“It takes years of failing and practicing to get good at anything,” she says.

In her current studio, the interplay between failure and practice is visible: a wall covered in drawings, and the “scraps” of ideas and colors hanging around the room.

“When a painting is not salvageable, I will cut out sections of it before throwing it out, so I have little swatches of texture or moments of color, excerpts that I like,” she says.

I tell her about the novel I finished the night before: Self-Portrait With Boy by fellow Brooklyn-based IU alumna Rachel Lyon, which centers on an accidental image that simultaneously haunts an artist and makes her career. In one scene, the photographer insists on getting rid of not only the large print, but also the test print and slide, believing the material itself is cursed.

“She’s right!” Orchard laughs. “It’s a painterly superstition but I believe it’s true. Some kind of panic has been instilled every time you approach that canvas.”

On the day of our interview, Orchard is “bouncing between” six in-progress canvases. Despite or because of the current uncertainty, Orchard says her work process has been “kind of fun, which is probably the wrong word. But there’s a physicality to painting. Just keeping your hands busy is a way to escape.”

"Pond Bathers," painted on canvas in oils.

Before the pandemic, she had a show and was using the lull that followed to “make a lot of awkward, aimless work.” She’s playing with color palettes and seeing what sticks.

“I can always sense a contrivance going into a painting and no room for an idea to develop in the moment. For me, the work is not about transcribing a finished idea. It’s about the idea taking place in front of you, and then the painting is the record of that.”

When I ask how she situates her work in a broader cultural context, Orchard reiterates that she doesn’t actively set out with a message, but often discovers relevant feelings or scenarios in the paintings after they’re made. She listens to political podcasts in the studio.

“I think I like the rage,” she says. “Women’s bodies are particularly politically charged, so by virtue of what I’m making, I’m involved in this dialogue.”

In her latest show, for example, all the figures were nude. While this decision made the scenes timeless — free from the distracting marker of clothing style — it also prompted many viewers to inquire about Orchard’s sexuality.

“There’s no sexual imagery in the work, but that told me a lot about how people think a woman’s nudity must be sexual,” she says. “I found it funny because that’s only what I’m doing for a fraction of the time that I’m nude. I’m more likely to be eating in bed.”

When combing through Orchard’s digital gallery, I find myself wishing to sink through the screen into their sumptuous color worlds, their sudsy thickness. In one painting, a woman reclines in a brimming bath, her apricot neck tilted all the way back. Her left hand dips below the lip of the tub, her eyes creased shut, a steaming bubble overhead. Then I see the right hand taut with a red-tipped cigarette, the discarded envelope, the letter drifting on the water’s surface. I notice the title: Rejection Season. Then comes again the recognition of having been there: a sporty endeavor abandoned to booze and torpor, or a companionable, if worried, silence passed between friends. I too have known the release of a volcanic bath following disappointment or overwhelming uncertainty, whether in the outside world or in myself. The scene reads as relaxing, yes, but the exhalation is complex, visceral, and made new.

“The characters are presenting themselves to be viewed,” Orchard says about her work. “They’re participating in being viewed, reveling in it. That’s politically unsavory to some people at this moment, but the relationship to viewing is rich and complex, especially as a woman, and is a natural concern for painting: what it means to create for the consumption of others, what it means to consume a body.”

Katie Moulton

Katie Moulton is a writer, editor, and music critic. Her writing has appeared in Sewanee Review, Oxford American, The Believer, The Rumpus, No Depression, and elsewhere. Her work has been supported by fellowships and awards from MacDowell, Bread Loaf, Tin House, and Indiana University, where she earned her M.F.A. and was the editor of Indiana Review. Her audio memoir, Dead Dad Club, is forthcoming from Audible. Originally from St. Louis, she makes her home in Baltimore.