Frances Hamilton: Books and Painted Stories

Cutler / Slaviridis Gallery, Boston, MA, January, 1981.

(Originally published in Art New England, February, 1981.)

This delightful exhibition of paintings and painted books in gouache with occasional gold leaf and sequins clearly shows that Frances Hamilton has been inspired by Persian and Indian miniature paintings. This influence is especially strong in the characteristic use of flat abstract and flower patterns to describe landscape and divide space and in the story-telling tradition. Hamilton’s work also has the magical, enclosed quality of illustrated children’s books. By capturing the feeling of enchantment found in those books, these paintings evoke fairy tales, stories from the Arabian Nights, and other joys of childhood.

The stories are implied by the titles and told through the images, which are present either in small painted books or in long, horizontal panels that cannot be seen all at once but unfold slowly. All of the works, even the abstract pieces, take place in the same imaginary, completely self-contained universe. It is a world made up of flat, painted pattern pieces suggesting the big, flat expanses of deserts, oceans, and skies. In the distance there often can be seen fantastic architecture: luxurious interiors and elaborate floors, stairways, and columns.  Through these spaces the characters- beautiful, languid men and women in elaborate clothes – float, cavort, and dream. The pictures capture our imagination with the inventiveness and charm of the patterns painted in clear, harmonious colors and with lively, lyrical forms of the elements and their graceful balance on the page, all heightened by the sense of a story unfolding before us.

The Silk Route is a desert landscape made up of flower and geometrical patters and mosques and fortified towns in the distance.  Images of a meal on a golden table, a love triangle, a pool surrounded by palm trees and cedars, two women in gold chadors under a canopy all drift as in a dream. In The Night Veil, a pair of lovers sleep in a sea of cloth and billowing forms that may represent waves or mountains or perhaps clouds in a lyrical evocation of love and sleep. The Story of Green, a small abstract collage of painted papers and gold leaf sewn and fastened together, has the same dreamlike, evocative feeling as the figurative work.

One of the painted books, Jealousy, contains a dozen small paintings bound together. The pictures evoke jealous dreams that sometimes soothe and sometimes torment in images of longing, pleasure, rage, and independence. Especially beautiful is a page showing a woman riding on a horse, her eyes flashing, her hair blowing in the wind in the night air.

For Frances Hamilton these painted books and stories seem to be a way of reaching into and recapturing the past – both the cultural past of other painting traditions and the personal past of childhood reading.  She has seized and refashioned much-loved images, memories, and dreams, transforming them,  with clarity and intensity, into a fully re-imagined universe.  It is this transformation – the serious, difficult task of art – that underlies and illuminates the surface charm of these paintings and gives the work its power to enchant.

by Rebecca Nemser for


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