Florentine Magic
An American Artist Finds Stories and Style in Italy

By Meghan Louttit ©2005

A man waiting on his shoppaholic wife?
A young Italian woman on the search for love?
A couple of secret agents passing a note?
No, this is not a teaser for the latest Spielberg film.
These are just some of the possible stories being lived by the
characters found in Matthew Bates' most recent cityscape, Botticelli e

Bates is an American artist living in Italy. He considers himself a
Florentine painter but doesn't paint in Florentine style.
Bates' style is called magic realism.
Magic realism is best described as a painting taken straight from the
sights of everyday life, but with a little something added to it.
" Realism can be ugly, think about reality TV. I tweak the color, I add
something to it that's not there or I take something away," he said. "It's
also the bending of space and time to create an image which stretches reality."
A great example of magic realism can be seen in Bates' painting Santa
Trinità Bridge
. If you were to stand at the exact point where Bates was
standing when he found the inspiration for this painting, you wouldn't be able
to see the entire bridge. In the painting you can.
Bates creates these paintings to defy reality and make you feel like
you're staring there staring at the real thing.
And he does it with photographs.
He is one of the few emerging artists who has embraced the world of
technology, specifically digital photography and the Internet, to create and
market his work.
"I take hundreds of pictures for each subject. Sometimes I integrate
photographs and sometimes there's one that works really well," he said.
Take Santa Trinità Bridge for example - the three different perspectives
you see in this painting were created by taking ten separate photographs,
putting them into the computer and meshing them together to create one image.
Then once the brush touches the canvas the real work can begin.

Bates is quick to point out that his paintings are far from photographs.
" Photography is an incomplete science," he said. "You don't see all of the details
because what happens in photography is that it can only focus on one
thing...you don't see the detail in the dark places when you focus on the light areas.”

"Photography is hands-off, a machine that clicks. As a painter, I'm
doing that in my head. I can manipulate the image, change the color, change
the attitude. To do a painting is to do an idea."
And Bates gets his ideas from the world around him. By looking at his
history it is easy to see how the transition to painting magic realism from
abstract watercolors came about.
Bates grew up in Washington, D.C., under the watchful eye of his
father, a musician and watercolor artist and his mother, a singing instructor
who specializes in meditative healing techniques. He was surrounded by art, so
it's no wonder that at age 14 he began to paint and hasn't stopped since.
When he graduated from high school he made his way to San Francisco to
attend the Academy of Art College.
The laid-back attitude of California infiltrated Bates' abstract
watercolors for two years, during which he took a class on the anatomy for
artists with a teacher named Thomas Marsh.
One day Marsh sat the class down and told them they had to go to
Florence, Italy, and proceeded to give them directions from the train station
to Michelangelo's David.
According to Bates, the class thought he was crazy. But the brush had
been dipped.
After two years Bates decided to study abroad to get away from the
structure of the school and, keeping in mind the advice of Marsh, decided to
head to Florence.
When he first arrived, the bus made a stop at Piazza Michelangelo. As
Bates stood there and saw Florence stretch out before him, he instantly knew
that this city was calling him home.
"I came here and everything changed. I felt at home," he said.
After a year in Italy he returned to San Francisco for one more
semester at the Academy of Art and realized that two years of school was all he
"The first two years of art school are very helpful. You learn design
and some technique, drawing, painting...you learn that you need structure in
your work."
But after two years, "it's all studio work, which you can do on your
own," said Bates.
And he knew just where he wanted that studio to be.
In 1992 after starting his third year at the Academy of Art, Bates
dropped out and moved to Florence.
"I knew if I had to finish my degree I would never go to Italy," he
Since then he's never looked back, he said, and over the course of 15
years Florence has taught him more about art and painting than any school
could've taught him over ten lifetimes.
The inspiration he got from being in Florence was the complete opposite
of what he got in San Francisco. It set him to work.
"That's what Florence does, it sets you in stone, you’ve got Michelangelo
looking over your shoulder. You don't get that in California, that feeling
doesn't permeate the air there. Florence is a hand-made city. there’s nobody
doing this stuff for you."
By 1995 Florence had helped transform Bates into strictly a realism
painter and the magic was soon to follow.
"Magic realism had a lot to do with the Web," explained
Bates. "Someone in the Yahoo directory listed me as Magic Realism and I liked
it. Magic is a beautiful word for that."
However, Bates says that his magic realism is distinctly different from
the early beginnings of the style over 50 years ago.
" It wasn't as colorful, it was more surrealist," he said.
By 2000, Bates was still only painting part-time while he worked full-
time at a residence to pay the bills. That is until a falling out with the
owners and some advice from a habitual visitor convinced him that it was time
for him to make his first stroke as a professional painter.
While he still works part-time at a residence, which allows him to work
on his website where he displays and promotes all of his artwork, he still
spends most of his time painting.
The adjustment to life as a professional painter in Italy hasn't been
"It wasn't easy and it's never going to be easy," he said. But
Florence, he said, keeps him from falling back into being a nothing.
"I know nobody's going to do it for me."
The $40,000 Bates made last year just from selling his paintings is
evidence that people are responding and that a lifetime of painting is not just
something out of a surrealist's dream.
"Since I was 14, not one month has gone by where I haven't done a
painting," he said. "It's not really a question of pride. It's just who I am."
So he keeps painting and keeps telling stories wherever he may find
them. According to him, the stories told in Botticelli e Filippino are just
the beginning.
"We are all part of a bigger story and the fact is that this story is
unfolding everyday, everywhere. My contribution is to offer you the chance to
experience a glimpse, just a look at how interesting life really is.


Visit Matthew Bates Galleries: Flowers - Still Life - Cityscapes - Landscapes - Statues - Email