A magnificent masterpiece: Artist James Van Fossan spent three years painting ‘Drama Magnifico’ | VailDaily.com

A magnificent masterpiece: Artist James Van Fossan spent three years painting ‘Drama Magnifico’

Caramie Schnell
Artist James Van Fossan and his painting "Drama Magnifico."
Rex Keep | Special to the Weekly |

See the painting

For a YouTube video of “Drama Magnifico” by James Van Fossan, set to music composed and performed by Van Fossan, visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lb7yw5rh2Ng. For more information about the artist, visit http://www.jamesvanfossan.com or call 970-688-0318.

“Drama Magnifico” will be on display May 14-20 at the Great Jones Space in New York City.

Despite spending more than 4,000 hours and three years painting and staring at “Drama Magnifico” in his narrow home studio, artist James Van Fossan isn’t entirely sure how many figures are in the piece.

“Somewhere around 150,” James said. “It’s meant to represent a throng of people: Thousands.”

The Eagle-based realist painter recently finished “Drama Magnifico,” an oil painting that’s hard to look away from. Without any hyperbole, James’ work is reminiscent of traditional master figure paintings from the Renaissance. Standing in front of the enormous canvas — it towers 8-and-a-half feet tall and 6-and-a-half feet wide — it’s impossible to look away.

That was the point, James said.

“I did it to affect people,” he said. “Sometimes I’ve done paintings where it’s taken me months and people give it 3 seconds. I wanted to make a painting that commands your attention.”

And it does.

Three years ago, when James put the first brushstrokes of paint on the canvas, he wasn’t sure he was capable of painting the piece he envisioned.

“It terrified me,” he said. “But I wanted to do something that hadn’t been done before, something that excited me.”

Nearly 50 people attended a semi-private viewing on Jan. 24.

“After such a long time of keeping this painting a secret and than finally getting such astute and heartfelt reactions from everyone was so inspiring to me,” James said. “It’s been said, ‘never underestimate the wisdom and intelligence of your audience’ and this was one of my key motivations while creating this painting. A friend said she felt like crying as she studied it. I believe she feels the tears I often shed while I created it. That is the ultimate reaction to me.”

The sacrifices that went into the piece are many: including many short nights for James, who sold through much of inventory while making this painting. After a year or two of “no substantial income,” their reserves were running low. Leigh Ann started painting again and James took a part-time job working at a golf course this past summer. As soon as he arrived home, he would paint until “his eyes physically shut against his will every night,” said Leigh Ann Van Fossan, James’ wife and representative. “I didn’t see much of my husband those months, but it was necessary to achieve this shared dream.” “Life is too short not to take risks, and painting this one was worth every second of that risk,” James said.


Perhaps most remarkable of all is the relatively short amount of time that it’s taken James, 50, who is a self-taught artist, to master his craft. He’s only been painting professionally for a decade.

While the painting is stunning as a whole, it also tells countless stories within. The more you study it, the more the painting reveals and the more questions you might have.

“I watched the whole painting from start to finish and I still find pieces I didn’t know about,” said Leign Ann.

More than 10 models sat for the piece. Leigh Ann and their 4-year-old daughter Sophia are represented, as is James’ dad. Most of the men in the painting are based on James’ face, but with different features tweaked here and there: a more angular chin or a broader nose.

“I never knew what I needed ’til I was there,” James explains. “But it told me what it needed.”

At first, James wanted to show man’s climb through life, “both metaphysically and physically; the striving and falling and striving again. Then, it turned into showing the cycle of life. That’s the second narrative of it. It’s a definite circle and the very center is death. Someone is holding death and being comforted and being shown how the cycle continues with the baby.”

At the base of the painting is a book with the word “Truth” on the spine.

“It’s the most valuable thing, this thing called truth, but it can also be misused,” James explained.

Whereas the people toward the bottom of the painting are peaceful, with tranquil expressions on their face, as the painting climbs, the expressions change and aren’t nearly so calm. The top of the piece feels more turbulent, with the subjects hair blowing around.

“It’s a lot like life: when you’re up there, you’re not grounded, you’re being pushed and pulled by other people,” James said.

As your eyes come down the right side of the painting, toward the bottom, the figures seem to be falling toward the inevitable: death. The scene gets markedly darker, culminating in a dying man in the bottom right quadrant.


The Van Fossans entered “Drama Magnifico” in the Art Renewal Center’s 2014-2015 International ARC Salon, the largest online international art salon for contemporary realism art. James’ painting “Magnum Opus” won the chairman’s choice award two years ago in the competition.

“For this kind of art, the salon is the biggest thing you can enter,” Leigh Ann said.

The couple won’t know the results until April.

Come May, the Van Fossans will drive the painting across the country. It will be on display May 14-20 at the Great Jones Space in New York City. The exhibit is hosted by Jerry’s Artarama.

“‘Drama Magnifico’ is a painting that comes along once in a generation and is the most important piece of American contemporary realism of the 21st century,” said David Goldstein, the chief operating officer of Jerry’s Artarama. “The painting takes the viewer on the journey of the human condition from the very lowest ebbs to the very zenith of our journey. It is a painting to be studied by everyone as it is so perceptive of the drama in our lives.”

Beginning at the New York show, silent bids starting at $350,000 will be considered. For James, the ultimate goal would be to have the piece hang somewhere where many people could see it.

“A museum would be the dream,” Leigh Ann said. “Like the European Museum of Modern Art in Barcelona; or George Lucas is opening a narrative art museum in Chicago in a few years. We’re trying to be open with the possibilities. We want to avoid locking it into a gallery because then it will be out of our hands.”

James and videographer Remsen Allard created a short musical film of the painting, which can be see on YouTube. Footage of individual sections of the painting is paired with a 5-minute musical score titled “The Valley of Truth,” which James wrote and performed. The music, like the painting, starts out light and happy, then gets more intense and active before turning dark and foreboding. Finally it transitions to a more calm, peaceful resolution.

“It guides you visually and emotionally through the story of the piece, so people who won’t have a chance to stand right in front of the piece will still have a chance to experience it,” Leigh Ann said.

High Life Editor Caramie Schnell can be reached at cschnell@vaildaily.com and 970-748-2984. Follow her on Twitter @caramieschnell.

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