In the male-dominated world of successful painters, a Niçois woman artist is about to make her mark, and make it big time.
Quick – name five painters! And now think how many of those you named are women. In the pictorial arts, women are frequently on a canvas, but less often in front of one. Rarer even are those that are actually successful. Georgia O’Keeffe comes to mind, and Frida Kahlo. And now Catherine Rigal is determined to join the ranks of those illustrious few.
Hard as it is for any artist to find recognition, women have traditionally an even harder time to get to the top. Catherine, however, is no stranger to adversity, and to having to fight for what she wants. The road from her childhood in the outskirts of Paris in the 1960s to being featured in leading French art galleries a few decades later has been a stony one. But it built a strong, resilient character.
After losing her mother at age 6, she grew up in unstable circumstances, bouncing around from family to family, from country to country. During a year spent in England as a teenager, her uncle Allen and a family friend, painter Brian Tuvey, both encouraged her interest in the arts, and Catherine did her first oil painting on wood, a landscape reminiscent of the Constable School and of such delicate and intricate detail that her talent really shone through.
However, back in France, Catherine had to leave school and find a job. Not really knowing what to do, she accepted an apprenticeship as a dental prothesist. Living in squalid conditions, painting increasingly became a way of fleeing her difficult reality.
Her fortune turned for the better though when she eventually moved to Marseille where she found herself welcomed into a sophisticated aristocratic family that fostered her artistic spirit and introduced her to the world of cinema and television. Soon she made friends with many of the great entertainers of the 1970s and 80s, among them Léo Ferré, whom she became very close with. And she got her first job as an artist, doing design for films.
Having gotten her creative juices flowing, Catherine then went on to Rennes to study at the École des Beaux Arts. She also met Jean-Paul Rigal who would later become her husband. Together they moved to the Côte d’Azur. Through her father-in-law, who was the president of French film, she also got in touch with the local community of film and theater actors, and quickly made friends with them.
Inspired by the quality of light and abundance of colours of the Riviera, Catherine, by then the young mother of twins, took up painting again, and eventually decided to pursue her passion on a professional basis. It didn’t take long until her œuvres were found in contemporary fine art galleries and exhibitions up and down the French Riviera.
In 2002, opportunity knocked on her door in the incarnation of international art expert and collector Guy Heytens from Monaco. Sitting in her living room, he spotted one of Catherine’s paintings, and liked it enough to buy it on the spot. And another one, too, and another one…. By the end of his unexpected shopping spree, he had purchased her entire body of art. Catherine’s work ended up featured in Guys Heytens’ Monaco exhibition “From Impressionism to Pop Art”, alongside Degas, Chagall, Braque, Mirò, Utrillo, Lichtenstein, and pretty much any other 20th century household name in the world of painting. Her œuvres were on permanent display there until Guy Heytens closed the gallery for health and age reasons years later.
An intriguing accomplishment, not just to be displayed among such venerable but also among an all-male cast. How come that so few women succeed in painting? “The field of art is very macho,” Catherine says. “You have to be brilliant to stand up to men. Strangely enough though, there is also a lot of jealousy coming from women. But my resilience from my rough childhood days has helped me overcome these hurdles.”
Catherine’s talent also got noticed in Nice by Le Curé Jean-Marc Schoepff of the Sainte Famille parish. He offered her to paint a portion of the interior of St. Joseph, along with a triptych telling the story of the church’s namesake. A rare opportunity to begin with for any artist – but practically unheard of for a woman. Always ready to tackle a challenge, personal and artistic, Catherine applied herself to the task to create a seven meter tall scene depicting the descent of the Holy Spirit. “It is one thing to work on a canvas in front of you but quite another to do something this size which has to make an impact even from a great distance. I constantly went back and forth between my scaffold and different places in the church to make sure I got all the proportions right.”
She spent two years working on her fresco which was unveiled at St. Joseph’s centennial celebration in 2011. The day of the Centennial, in the presence of Deputy Mayor Christian Estrosi, one name was conspicuously absent from the list of invitees though: that of Catherine Rigal. She had simply been “overlooked”. It all harks back again to the theme of the establishment’s jealousy and a general underappreciation of women artists, she thinks.
One who did not overlook her skills, and in fact valued them so much he wanted to collaborate with her, was international actor and director Marc Duret, Catherine’s longtime friend. When Marc presented “Cyrano de Bergerac” during his 2012/13 artistic residence at Espace Magnan, he enlisted Catherine to paint four pastel panels illustrating the most classic of all French theater plays, and they found great praise. Décor painting has become very rare in theaters these days but Catherine hopes she can help to eventually revive it. It would make sense, she says, especially since it is so “portable” these days – simply project a photo of the painting onto any stage of any size, anywhere.
What makes her painting so special is an ever-evolving style which ranges from English landscapes to placard art such as her posters for the Cannes Film Festival, fantasy creatures like her birds, or a distinctly Japanese phase – but always with a jubilant love for colours. Bright and unabashedly in-your-face yet harmonious. Influenced by Cocteau and Picasso, with a bow to Matisse and Gauguin. And the feminine note that is Catherine’s hallmark throughout.
Yet, Catherine does not want to enforce her own artistic perspective on the viewer. “I would rather understand what they want.” One of her major concerns is “that people don’t understand the arts anymore,” and she would like to help re-educate the public in understanding and interpreting paintings. One way to go about this are her regular postings on her public Facebook page, presenting and commenting on interesting art work, and engaging the public in a dialogue.
Where does Catherine see the contemporary creative scene headed? She is actually not a big fan of today’s pictorial arts. “There is very little beauty and a lot of bad art around these days. St. Paul has become a veritable cemetery of the arts, an artistic desert,” she complains. In her opinion, France is no longer desirable for artists. “They cannot survive here, and the good ones all go abroad where they find better work conditions and markets.”
Under these circumstances, even one as accomplished as Catherine has to fight on a daily basis, still having to support her artistic passion by working again in her original job as a dental ceramist. But she will stay on course, regardless. She is at home here in Nice, gracious and kind but ferociously resilient, with a well-earned spot in the ranks of the contemporary maestri Guy Heytens placed her among…. and enough talent to step into the stilettos of her great international sister artists.
Natja Igney is a senior global communications strategist with 1021 Global Communications Consulting. She has a particular interest in theatre and filmmaking.
All images courtesy Catherine Rigal