Zoë Nathan's work celebrates romantic realism

Even upon a quick glance, Zoë Nathan's portraits cling to a viewer.

Beautifully understated, gracefully executed, and filled with nuanced introspection, the artist's work feels like an exuberant expression of the world she sees buried under the material world. In Nathan's skilled hands, humanity becomes more clear, less blurry in the shadows of our daily existence. 

click to enlarge Zoë Nathan's work celebrates romantic realism
TRICOLORED TRIO: In images such as Painted Into Being, artist Zoë Nathan blurs the line between romanticism and realism, a style she is often associated with.

Zoë Nathan's work celebrates romantic realism
THE MUSE: Zoë Nathan is currently featured as part of the Elverhoj Museum of History and Art’s 30-year retrospective, titled Past, Present, and Future. To see more of Nathan’s work or to contact the artist, visit zoenathan.com.

Nathan is a sculptor and painter who has exhibited in numerous galleries and museums in the Santa Ynez Valley and Santa Barbara for more than 15 years. Her work has hung in museums such as the Elverhoj Museum of History and Art and at the former C Gallery in Los Alamos. In 2013, she was featured in Mark Robert Halper's book Between Seer and Seen: Celebrating the Artists of Santa Barbara County. She is currently featured as part of the Elverhoj's Past, Present, and Future, a retrospective of the museum's 30-year history.

Her roots in art trace back to her early years, when she she was drawn to painting and drawing. Nathan was admitted to Simon's Rock College while still in her junior year of high school. After receiving her associate degree, Nathan then transferred to Sarah Lawrence College in upstate New York. 

"I've always sketched or drawn," she said. "I did get into [art] a little bit at Santa Ynez High with Connie Rohde as a teacher. She was great."

She was first drawn to portraiture, especially the self-portraits of famed painter and activist Frida Kahlo. Kahlo's work explored deep issues of self-identity framed around gender, race, and class, among other topics. Her brightly colored palette was juxtaposed with jarring surrealist images that addressed the complexities of sexuality and politics, which made her one of the most iconic painters of the 20th century. 

click to enlarge Zoë Nathan's work celebrates romantic realism
KEEP THE ROMANCE REAL: Painter and sculptor Zoë Nathan’s work is best described as romantic realism, a style that pulls elements of romanticism from the 1800s and aspects of realistic painting.

"It was such an interesting portal into the artist's mind," Nathan said. "She would use visual metaphors to convey her inner experience, her inner world, which involved some pain and also some love."

Among her biggest influences, Nathan lists Austrian painter Gustav Klimt and John Singer Sargent. Sargent was a master portrait painter, and Nathan's portraits, which linger with a viewer long after seeing them, exhibit the same kind of honesty and humanity.

"Klimt's use of color and pattern is so lovely," she said. "With Sargent, I think I'm striving to become more like him. He had such an eye for capturing things that were right in front of him."

Unlike Sargent, who worked with live models, Nathan typically uses photographs she takes herself. Then, she puts the picture into Photoshop where she makes collages out of them, creating the image she will eventually paint.

Nathan also finds inspiration in the work of her fellow artists, letting those who are in the infinite quest for muses become her muse.

"I did a series of portraits of other artists with their work," she said. "I started looking at their work and thinking, 'Would this work as a backdrop?'"

At times haunting and moody, Nathan's work is firmly rooted in realism, with small hints of surrealism in the mood she strikes with each piece. Her paintings have the playfulness of Klimt's colorful masterpieces and the stoic grace of Sargent's best works. She imparts something delicate yet powerful into her portraits, reaching beyond the subterfuge of human courtesies and drawing out deeper truths. 

click to enlarge Zoë Nathan's work celebrates romantic realism
POWER PLAYER: Artist Zoë Nathan has a knack for drawing out her subject’s inner monologue, as she plays with ideas of identity. Nathan said she often draws from her education in psychology and anthropology when painting.

An art professor once categorized her style as "romantic realism," a moniker that seems more than accurate.

"It's not quite surreal; it's not quite hyperrealistic," she said of her style. "I think I am interested studying identities through my portraiture. I hark back to my studies in psychology, sociology, and anthropology, and I think that informs a lot of my pieces."

While she lives in Santa Barbara, Nathan has been in many exhibits at local galleries. She recently began working with some galleries in Los Angeles and is pursuing more opportunities for shows in that area. 

But Santa Ynez still holds a special meaning for her.

"I've just found a very lovely community of artists, gallery owners, and museum owners in the Santa Ynez Valley and Los Alamos," Nathan said. "I always love and appreciate all of the artists I've met in the area." 

Arts and Lifestyle Writer Rebecca Rose is always looking inward. Contact her at [email protected].

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