The Gleaners, after Millet

the gleaners
The Gleaners after Millet

The Gleaners – a painting about social exclusion and inequality

It took longer than expected, but I finished it in the end. I needed the help of a terrific life model who helped me rework the foreground figures, and somewhat changed the look of the whole painting. I feel that when I put my easel in front of someone, whether it is a paid model model or paying portrait customer, the process of painting them is very much a collaboration. This was another example of a successful collaboration with a model where the end result is different, and better than my original design.

the artist and the model in front of their painting
the artist and the model

“The Gleaners” started off as a simple reimagining of the Millet painting of the same name. I had a clear idea of what I wanted to produce, but ideas don’t always transfer smoothly onto the canvas. As with the subject of Millet’s painting, I wanted to say something about social exclusion and inequality.

the gleaners and film still from the shout

It all began when I happened upon a still image from the 1978 film “The Shout”. Susannah York is seen scurrying across the floor on all fours, like some primeval creature. I saw similarities in this pose with the main figures in Millet’s “The Gleaners”, and immediately set about composing a contemporary version of that painting, with the creepy black and white photo of Susannah York as reference for the main figures. And that was the start of my problems.

Original sketch and first underpainting on canvas

I actually started this project just over a year ago! Early progress between first sketch and the initial underpainting was good. But there is a month between each of the three progress photos shown here (above and below,) and there’s not a great deal of progress. By the end I had even thrown in a SpaceX Starship departing a desolate wasteland in the distance. But for all my tweaks, the main figures of the gleaners were just not progressing.

And then I watched a tv documentary that changed everything.

It was an episode of the Art Mysteries (Sky Arts) where the wonderful Waldemar Januszczak uncovers secret meanings hidden within Thomas Gainsborough’s painting “Mr and Mrs Andrews”. You can watch it on YouTube here.

The Incredible Story Behind Mr and Mrs Andrews (Waldemar Januszczak Documentary)

Gainsborough may have been alluding to the Enclosure Acts, which denied commoners access to what had previously been common land. The intended theme for my painting was social exclusion and inequality, so I thought it quite apt to borrow the layout from “Mr and Mrs Andrews”. It also offered a tidy way of opening up the stage, allowing the introduction of more actors. Fenced off green fields were a fitting backdrop for what I was trying to say, and I could bring the desolate wasteland to the foreground.

I would like to say that it was all plain sailing from then on. But that wasn’t the case. The change of background helped, and I added a number of figures to the group, which worked well. But the problem was with the “gleaners” in the foreground. From the very inception of this project over a year ago, they were meant to be the focal point of this painting. But I couldn’t get these emaciated figures to work.

Search for a life model

By this stage (August 2022) I realised that I would have to find a model to work with, in order to finish these three figures. I posted about it here.
Luckily I found a model who was interested in the project and had a great look for the painting. In fact, the whole look of the painting changed after working with her. Out went the emaciated look, in came the haunting backward stare. From here on it was plain sailing, and the painting was finished for its debut at the Cluster Contemporary Art Fair.

I particularly enjoy working with models who are invested in the project – who are interested in the creative process. When I showed this painting to big crowds at the Cluster Contemporary exhibition in London, it was the backward stare of the model that drew most attention from visitors – something I hadn’t planned until after I met her. When I look at my more successful compositions, I see how they are very much a collaboration between myself and the model, just as a portrait is a collaboration between artist and sitter.

An awkward conversation about my Ukraine War painting.

men wrestling on display at cluster contemporary art fair

I had a difficult conversation about this painting at the recent Cluster Contemporary Art Fair. A Ukrainian woman approached me and asked me to explain it. I don’t think she was happy with what I said.
First, I should make clear that I see only one aggressor in this war in Ukraine, and I admire the dignity and bravery of the Ukrainian people. But that is not what this painting is about.

details from Men Wrestling with Putin naked and Macron and Boris Johnson
details from Men Wrestling

Clearly I was mocking Putin, naked on his golden throne with rickety wooden legs. And having Macron with Boris Johnson wearing theatrical costumes is obviously questioning their motivation for their actions on the world stage. Biden cheering on from a distance is a comment on the US’s stance in this war.
No, what puzzled this woman was the relevance of the naked men wrestling.

naked men wrestling. detail from men wrestling

Many visitors who saw this painting at Cluster Contemporary spotted the reference to old photos of wrestlers by Eadweard Muybridge, and also to Francis Bacon’s Two Figures, which had used the Muybridge photos as a reference.

two figure by francis bacon, wrestlers by Eadweard Muybridge
Two Figures by Francis Bacon, Two Men Wrestling by Eadweard Muybridge

This is not a noble painting about Ukrainian heroism. Instead it is a grubby little story about you and me: it’s about everyone cheering their chosen sides from the safety of their living room; it is about how a primal conflict to the death by two warring races has become an exciting spectacle for the rest of the world; it is about my shame in feeling any excitement at missiles raining down on Russian tanks and troops; it is about my sadness over what we have become.

Cluster Contemporary Art Fair

visitors to cluster contemporary looking at my painting Alleged Assault on Pax by Mars

Will people understand my paintings?

I showed three recent paintings at the Cluster Contemporary Art Fair, held in the wonderful Oxo Tower Wharf on London’s South Bank. Thanks to everyone who visited, and sorry if I didn’t have time to speak to all of you.
I was eager to show these paintings together; I wanted to gauge people’s reactions. When you work alone in your studio for months on end, it’s easy to start having nagging doubts: “Will they understand my paintings?” …or most commonly “WTF am I doing?”
I’m not too bothered if people don’t understand these works, as long as they engage with them, and actually take the time to look at them. That’s all I can hope for.

visitors to cluster contemporary looking at the gleaners by peter d'alessandri

“Surreal. The artist is on drugs”

Well, they certainly provoked a strong reaction, and mainly favourable. There were a few disparaging remarks, like “the artist must be on drugs” 🙂 Most of the visitors I spoke to were genuinely interested in the art on show, and I found it one of the most interesting events that I have taken part in.
I took part in this event as I wanted to put my recent work in front of a real audience. Social media is okay for sharing updates, but there really is no substitute for real people looking at the actual paintings.

the gleaners and men wrestling at cluster contemporary

The artist and the model

It was a nice surprise having the model with whom I worked on the painting “The Gleaners” turn up to see the show. I have mentioned in a previous post how I was at an impasse with that particular painting, unable to resolve some difficulties. And then I found Catarina, who was fascinated in the project from the start. There is something special about working with a good life-model, with whom you have an understanding. There is an exchange of ideas, and very quickly I had a solution for my problem painting. What I love about this type of collaboration is that the solution is not something that I could have imagined by myself – it was a product of the exercise of working with a model, working through different poses.

artist and model standing in front of the painting the gleaners
The artist and the model

This was the inaugural Cluster Contemporary Art Fair. There were certainly some teething problems, mainly related to their website and QR codes not working.
The show looked good, was nicely curated, and they attracted a reasonable crowd. Turn out was better than similar events I have attended at the same venue, and the visitors were genuinely interested in art, and weren’t just popping in to keep out of the rain.

Catarina’s website can be found here:


Perils of Painting a British Prime Minister

detail from the gleaners, with Liz Truss sitting under a tree
detail from The Gleaners

I have just finished my painting The Gleaners, complete with a figure bearing a striking resemblance to the The British Prime Minister Liz Truss. The paint has barely dried, and now I’m worried that she won’t be in office by the time I get to show the painting to the public.

The 3rd November. That’s the opening night of Cluster Contemporary, when I get to reveal it to the public. I would put money on her being deposed before then. Oh well.

I had the same problem when I featured Boris Johnson in a recent painting.

boris johnson and macron in my painting The Wrestlers
detail from Men Wrestling, with Boris Johnson and Macron, both in theatrical attire.

Boris Johnson’s dethroning was a long drawn out affair. That won’t be the case with Liz Truss. And also, I was not that worried about Johnson no longer being PM, as he was such a high profile figure, people won’t forget him in a hurry. Unlike Liz Truss.

A gallery owner once warned me that some of my paintings would have a limited shelf life, because of my inclusion of public figures. They were referring  specifically to my painting Alleged Assault on Pax by Mars, with Biden and Trump.

Alleged Assault on Pax by Mars, after Rubens, with Trump, Biden and Dominic Cummings
Alleged Assault on Pax by Mars

Well, they may have a point. But I am producing these works because they are about subjects and themes I feel very strongly about: War and peace; Post Truth;  social inequality. They don’t get much bigger than that. We are living in a tumultuous time, and the rapid changes at the head of the British government just reflect that. So bring them on. Whoever is next, I’ll have my paint brushes ready.

Preparations for an art fair

painting the gleaners, a work in progress
The Gleaners, unfinished

The unveiling of The Gleaners

I will be showing my most recent paintings at the Cluster Contemporary Art Fair in London, early November. One of the paintings that I am keen to show is The Gleaners – a work in progress, shown above. I hope I can finish it in time. You can learn more about it here.
The other two paintings that I will have on display will be “Alleged Assault on Pax by Mars” and “Men Wrestling”. Both very topical during this time of increased tension, and war in Ukraine.

detail from alleged assault on pax by mars, with trump and biden
detail from Alleged Assault on Pax by Mars, with preparatory sketches.

The photo above shows  sketches for the three figures behind the sofa, who each represent an archetypal modern woman (two of them are based on Madonna and Marilyn Monroe). It might give an idea of just how much preparatory work goes into these compositions, with each figure requiring a separate sitting and preparatory drawings.

detail of painting with putin naked, on golden throne
detail from Men Wrestling

It’s always nice to talk to people about my work, and to see people’s reactions. The fair runs from 4th-6th November. I’ll try to get along on most days, but if you’re planning a visit, send me a message, and I will make sure I am there.