Copley Square – Boylston Street

an Essay by Matthew Bates, Firenze, March 2012

When I start a work of art I always take a good look at the preparation photos to make sure that the subject is worthy of my time and will make a great painting. For a still life or a smaller work, the subject matter can be simple, breezy and of little consequence, it is enough that it is beautiful. For paintings of cities, the complexity changes, and the motivations behind the work have to be inspired to make for a valuable piece of art. For this painting we have to go back twenty-two years to see why this subject is so dear to me.

When I was a sophomore the Academy of Art College, way back in 1989, I had an art teacher who paved the way toward my professional and private life. His name is Thomas Marsh and he is a world class sculptor. His ability to draw was phenomenal. In his class, Anatomy for Artists, we would study the human body in a non medical fashion, just bones and muscles. Professor Marsh would draw with colored chalk on the chalkboard bones, and then fill in the muscles on top with a different color of chalk, the effect was magical, and when he would erase the board we would all shudder knowing that the world had just lost a great masterpiece of improvised art. I became more and more impressed by him and when on a random day in the Fall of 1989 he sat us down in a semicircle and started to tell us how if we considered ourselves to be artists then we had to visit Florence, Italy. We were in a studio on the other side of the world in San Francisco, and his words seemed bold a best. When he started giving directions from the train station to Michelangelo's David, we all thought he was quite mad. But the germ of an idea was put into my head, one that would change my life.

Fast forward to Christmas Vacation of the same year. I had a month long break, so I went home to Washington, D.C. for the holidays. There I got back in touch with all of my old friends from back home, and I was glad to be on familiar turf. I spent most of my free time with my best friend Jermaine, we were friends from way back, and we always had a good time together. He went to Emerson College in Boston, and since I had a longer break than he did I decided to go up to Boston to visit him.

My mother's family is from Cambridge, and I had spent most Summers in Manchester by the Sea, so I was very familiar with Boston, but always in the context of family gatherings in what I thought of as stuffy New England. I was so surprised to see that Boston had another side, a youthful fun side that I had never seen before. Jermaine's apartment was in the Back Bay, they had an amazing view of the Citgo sign from the top floor of their building. We would traipse up and down Newbury Street, between bars and bookstores and Tower Records at the end of the block. I loved the energy, all of the students, musicians from Berklee School of Music, and who knows whichever other school, Boston has so many. It seemed like a great place to go to college, and I was feeling great about New England for the first time in my life.

It was during that visit that I made the decision to go to Florence for my Junior Year of College. We were on a high of sophomoric adrenaline and I remember clearly sitting in the lobby of Jermaine's building and hatching the plan to go to Italy. It was epic, a real miracle because who does stuff like that. It happened in Boston's Back Bay in early 1990.

That Spring I went to sign up for a Florence program, and was accepted, and in no time at all was on a plane to Firenze, Italy, where I am writing this down twenty-two years later. My life was forever changed by that decision I made in Bean Town. So it is fitting that when I went to make a painting of Boston that it be of the Back Bay, just a few blocks from where Jermaine lived.

I say where Jermaine lived because, in 2008 Jermaine passed on, my best friend in the whole world is no longer with us. You see, the thing about Jermaine was that he loved life, and when he was in Boston his life was filled with promise. After graduating from Emerson he got his Masters degree at Northeastern, and his future looked bright. For some reason that I will never quite understand, he moved from Boston, where he had lived for years, back to Washington, D.C., and there he kind of gave up, became unemployed and then just depressed. In the end I hardly even knew him anymore.

That is why I have painted him into my painting. A painting is like a parallel dimension, a window into the soul of an artist, a place where magic can happen. In my painting, Jermaine never left Boston and is still smiling at us from across Boylston Street. He is successful and happy, the way he was when he lived there.

Jermaine Comparison

There are other things that I have done to alter the subject so that the painting would have a better look and feeling to it. In the original photos of Copley Square, there is a traffic camera, big brother style that dominates the sky at the intersection. I simply extracted it from my design because it has no place in my alternate dimension which I have created on canvas.

If you look carefully at the car in front of the Wendy's you will see that the Prudential Building is reflected in the window. I was going to include that building, in the original design, but I liked having the Old South Church being the main focus in the background. I am happy that the Prudential Building is at least included as a reflection.


I have never been a fan of signatures that are visible in the corner of a painting so I always try to design my name into the subject. This is something that I saw Richard Estes do and I have successfully added my name to several of my large cityscapes. In this painting of Boston, I added my name all over the place. It is written on the bag that the blond is carrying, twice, and on the license plate of the Chevy SUV. The year of the painting is on the bag and on the license plate of the Ford Focus. The license plate of the Ford has a double meaning because it is not only the year, but a Massachusetts status symbol. I should know, my grandmother had one, and believe me it was a big deal, she got it from her mother, and now my second cousin is driving around with a four digit plate that has been in my family for generations.

signature date

This is a Winter scene, there are numerous trees in the painting, all without leaves. The mood of the painting is Winter gray, it is the way I think of Boston, it is the dominant color of the painting. The splashes of color are all man made, and intentionally bright, asking for your attention, just like advertising in a magazine. However, the overall mood of Winter in Boston prevails, making the colors look silly and overstated.

The blond in the foreground is a detailed and complex subject. Her black boots are firmly rooted to the ground, like her New England pedigree. She is rich and she knows it. Her hair is flawless, her greatest feature, something that she spends hours on every day. She lives to shop and spend her husband's cash, but ironically, she has her own money, so she has nothing to worry about, just fashion, and working out three times a week. She loves riding horses, and sailing in the Summer when she is at her beach house on Nantucket. This is a young woman who knows her place in this world and is very happy to take it. She is juxtaposed against the top half of the painting which in terms of design, is the exact opposite of her. She represents detail in a field of no detail of the street. If you look up at the the top half of the painting you can see that the closest street lamp is mirroring her as an opposite. It is simple, without detail in a field of absolute detail of the buildings and cars. She has black boots, and the lamppost has two white lamps which mimic her boots in reverse. This is due to me taking out the “big brother” camera out of the scene, making for this amazing design feature.

Boston has always been a part of my life, and I am really happy to be able to have made this painting. The Boston School of painters has faithfully taught the skill of painting reality, and although I would not consider myself of this school, there is a certain happiness I get thinking about all of the great artists who have followed in the realist tradition, from Sargent to Whistler, to Edward Hopper, all with a wanderlust for traveling the world, and like me, with origins in New England.

By Matthew Bates

in Firenze, March 24th 2012

Copley Square Boston

Copley Square

Oil on Canvas - 70cm x 90cm

©2012 Matthew Bates -

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