Saturday 5 October 2019

Painting Jessye Norman

Painting Jessye Norman

Watercolour 86 x 54 cm 1990, Birmingham Symphony Hall Collection

This painting carries emotional memories for me. It was commissioned in mid-December 1990 by Birmingham Symphony Hall, part of the pre-publicity for Jessye Norman's concert on June 5th 1991. If I remember correctly, I was given permission to sit in at rehearsals to make sketches in Rotterdam and in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, where Jessye starred frequently. And of course I listened to every recording I could find during the making of the painting.

My diary looked like a battlefield. My wife was touring Spain with the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra and I was holding the fort with the kids. I had run out of my favourite Arches' watercolour paper with the SatinĂ© finish that allows the washes to float on the surface with extra brilliance. With Christmas approaching, a new roll had not yet arrived. I had set myself the challenge to create clouds of golden watercolour that would spread in a way that would "breathe" the vocal sound. I had to breathe with Jessye to make the painting sing. There's a compositional diagonal that runs from top left down to Jessye's left hand, forming the corner of a pyramid that peaks at her voice, so that the eye moves forward into that rising cloud. 

I made the deadline, Jessye loved the painting and sat for a hour after her Symphony Hall concert, majestically signing my prints. Queen Elizabeth arrived a week later, to officially open the hall. Jessye was a hard act to follow.

Many have paid tribute to the phenomenal musicianship, supreme voice and unique personality of Jessye Norman, who passed away on September 30th. I share the intense sadness of this loss. Her charm, wit, intelligence and professional perfectionism also left an unforgettable impression on anyone who shared her company. 

One could make a dozen paintings of Jessye, and I wanted to do one more, a head and shoulders portrait. When we met for high tea in her Amsterdam suite the day after a concert in 1992, I was ushered in as Mr. Perryman. Of course I had to say "Just call me Norman". She laughed and told me that when she was a little girl they used to call her Norman. We discussed possible locations for a new painting. Tanglewood, Nice, Chicago, maybe? As we sat together on the settee leafing through my photo books on her lap, I was overwhelmed at the beauty of her African-American complexion and her dramatic expressions of appreciation. What a delightful meeting that was! 

Sadly, the portrait was not to be. Later that year my wife was diagnosed with leukaemia and I had to drop everything. Four years later it was Jessye's moving recording of Beim Schlafengehen (When falling asleep) from Richard Strauss' Four Last Songs that filled the church at Vivian's funeral service.

Here's the link: Four Last Songs


  1. Thank you for sharing both your art and story. I met Maestro Kurt Masur several times and wished I had asked him to share stories of his work with Jessye Norman. She has always been one of my favorites.