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Robert Liberace: Reviving the Renaissance [elan magazine]

by Hope Katz Gibbs
elan magazine
May 2003
Painting by Liberace pictured here: “Charles.” oil on canvas, 28” x 20”

When Robert Liberace saw a stranger standing outside of the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria—not far from the classroom where he teaches figure drawing—he was intrigued. There was something about the shape of the man’s head, the intensity of his eyes and the way he groomed his beard that made Robert take notice.

Ever so politely, Robert approached the man to see if he’d model for a portrait. With a broad, charismatic smile he said, “My name is Charles, and I’d be happy to.” The model turned out to be a natural, and Robert created a portrait (pictured here) that could easily be mistaken for a photograph.

“From outward appearances Charles can be intimidating, but he is a very gentle person,” Robert says today. “Because of that, I was able to capture him on a deeper level. I hope that this comes across in the final art.”

It is Robert’s artistic mission to go beneath the surface and capture the essence of his models—their personality their soul even. His mission mimics the artists he is often compared to: da Vinci, Michelangelo and Rembrandt. Robert blushes at the suggestion that he’s in the same league as the Renaissance masters.

“Those men were amazing artists with an uncanny ability to capture the inner world of a human soul,” he says. “I plan to spend my entire career to accomplish the same.”

Interestingly, the New York native didn’t set out to be a fine artist when he entered the George Washington University in 1985 on a baseball scholarship. A pragmatist, he had no delusions he’d ever achieve greatness on the field. Rather, he planned to major in business and find a job in corporate America.

Then in his sophomore year, Robert took an art class. After a few weeks of being steeped in the world of sketchbooks and drawing studios, it dawned on him that maybe he would become a professional artist.

“I had always drawn pictures of Spiderman and Batman when I was a teenager,” he recalls. “I guess I was intrigued by the human form in action and got pretty good at capturing the character as he ran and jumped.”

Robert says the idea of making a living as an artist never dawned on him, though, because no teacher inspired him to explore his potential. That is, not until he met Frank Wright, a professor of fine art at GW who showed him how to create drawings in the tradition of the Old Masters.

Wright explained how Raphael and Rubens would draw the flesh of figures with red-earth chalk, the shadows of dark umber and the highlights with white. He encouraged the student to try the same approach and taught him how to tone and shade handmade paper made of a diluted solution of animal-hide and watered-down coffee.

More than a decade after graduating from GW’s Masters in Fine Arts Program, Robert has mastered the techniques-and has gained national attention. American Artist magazine honored him with the Emerging Artist Award in its 1996 Art Master’s issue.

In April 2001, he won Best of Show in the Portrait Society of America’s International Portrait Competition. And in November 2002, his drawings were displayed at the Arnot Museum of Art in E4nira, New York.

Robert’s work is also popular in galleries from Washington to Manhattan, and art aficionados nationwide have commissioned him to create likenesses of their children, wives and husbands. Notables, including George H.W Bush and Ambassador Sol Linowitz.

Like his idol Michelangelo, Robert has also tried his artistic hand at sculpture. In 1997 he was hired to create two three-by-five-foot relief sculptures for the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. “I was thrilled to get the job, but had never done a large marble sculpture before,” he says.

Adding more stress to the situation was the fact that Robert’s wedding was approaching. So in between being fitted for his tux and choosing the flowers, Robert spent hours learning how to carve marble under the tutelage of the professional who was working on the FDR Memorial.

The June wedding went off without a glitch and the day after returning home from his honeymoon, Robert went to work on the giant blocks of marble that had just been delivered to his studio. Three months later, the sculptures were installed.

“What I learned most from the experience was that I needed to focus,” says Robert, who now devotes his time to creating portraits in oil and pencil and doing figure drawings in addition to teaching other artists how to perfect their skills. “I tell my students although it’s important to be technically accomplished, it’s essential to capture the poetry of a motion, of a personality,” he says. “That is what takes a drawing or painting from something good to something great.”

About that name-is Robert Liberace related to the legendary Las Vegas pianist Lee Liberace? In fact, he is. “My grandfather and Liberace’s father were second cousins,” explains Robert. “A lot of my relatives are very talented musically, too, including my father, who plays the violin quite well, and my uncle, who is an accomplished tenor. I’m afraid the musical gene got lost on me.”

But an artistic gene obviously was passed on. Wife Lina is an award-winning magazine and book illustrator [read the profile about her in the Feb. 2006 issue of elan], so it wasn’t surprising when their daughter Celia, 2, began showing artistic talent.

“Celia recently drew a family portrait to welcome her new baby sister Ava [born in February],” the admiring papa explains. “We all had faces with mouths, noses and our eyes had pupils. No one had bodies, of course, but we all had legs and feet. We are very proud.”

For more visit: www.robertliberace.com.


More Elan magazine / Artist profiles Articles

"I get by with a little help from my friends," says Hope, who gives special thanks to:

• MICHAEL GIBBS, website illustration and design: www.michaelgibbs.com
• MAX KUKOY, website development: www.maxwebworks.com
• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.