Three Heroes. Sherlock Holmes, Jesus Christ and Napoleon. By artist Michael Bell

Three Heroes. Sherlock Holmes, Jesus Christ and Napoleon. By artist Michael Bell
Isabel del Rio

Three Heroes or more. Interview with artist Michael Bell in his weekly section on Yareah magazine MBELLART. Interview by Isabel del Rio.

I.R.- Hi Michael. Some days ago, I was surprised hearing that Sherlock Holmes was the character with more movies… Even more than Jesus Christ or Napoleon. I know he has lots of books, reviews, articles and comics too. How about painting? Is Holmes a suitable character to portrait?

M.B.- Well Isabel, when you first brought up Sherlock Holmes to me as a possible topic I immediately put on my “investigator’s cap” and did some digging of my own. Curiously enough Holmes is modeled after the Scottish physician Joseph Bell, who bears my surname and was also a teacher for Sherlock Holmes’ creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

So to answer your question I’d say yes — Sherlock Holmes would be an interesting character to portrait, since he often tracked serial killers and as you know, much of my work is created as a narrative, serial series, some of it revolving around killing. I also tend to work much like the former or the latter, depending on how you examine or interpret my work – exploring it from an investigator or killer’s point of view, like for instance in both my Ticket to Ride series and new Carnevale Italiano series that’s in progress. I don’t like my work to necessarily provide any answers for my audience, I actually prefer my work to do what lawyers do best – raise new questions. I explore moments just before or just after something has happened, allow the audience to pick up the clues, participate in the re-enactment, or make them an accomplice. I think it’s a big mistake for an artist to alienate the audience.

Michael Bell’s “Room Service” (left) and “Never Look Back” (right), both 60” X 60” oils & mixed-media subway maps on canvas, 2008, Ticket to Ride series

Michael Bell’s “Room Service” (left) and “Never Look Back” (right), both 60” X 60” oils & mixed-media subway maps on canvas, 2008, Ticket to Ride series

Michael Bell, “Violence and Death”, 48” X 96” oils on canvas (in progress for 2014), Carnevale Italiano series

Michael Bell, “Violence and Death”, 48” X 96” oils on canvas (in progress for 2014), Carnevale Italiano series

M.B.- Also, since I know that you love it when your readers always learn something new from me I found some more fun facts out about Sherlock Holmes. In Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter” Holmes claims to be related to Horace Vernet, a famous French painter of war history patronized by Napoleon III. Or so Holmes informed Watson regarding his hereditary genius, remarking, “Art in the blood is liable to take the strangest forms.”

Vernet was a French painter of battles, portraits, and Orientalist Arab subjects. His depictions of Algerian battles were well-received, as they were vivid depictions of the French army in the heat of battle. During the Revolution of 1848 Vernet discovered a new patron in Napoléon III of France, which was Napoleon I’s nephew. He continued to paint representations of the heroic French army during the Second Empire and was committed to representing war in an accessible and realistic way. He accompanied the French Army during the Crimean War, producing several paintings, including one of the Battle of Alma.

Also, speaking of Holmes, this past month Ripper Street (BBC) just aired on television. It takes place in London during the year following Jack the Ripper’s 1888 spree. Other popular shows exploring similar themes here in the USA would have to include Showtime’s hit series Dexter, The Following (FOX), Hannibal (NBC) and HBO’s True Detective. I could see my artwork exploring an investigator’s point of view, like Holmes, but would probably include myself to play his role, or use someone I know as his “character” set against a contemporary backdrop.

Horace Vernet, “The Battle of Alma”, 19th Century

Horace Vernet, “The Battle of Alma”, 19th Century


I.R.- I think, Sherlock Holmes represents a style. The smart and controversial Victorian time. Lords and prostitutes without teeth, huge factories and little beggars, black smoke in front of the green English countryside, smells of an exotic India and workers to strike… In your point of view and since you like Chicago 30s: are peaceful times less interesting for artists and authors? Why?

M.B.- I draw from my own life experiences and infuse that into my art, so I’m never at a loss for material, and I’ve always tackled themes that are born in those smoke-filled back alleys, train stations and Chicago 30’s style Speakeasies I have access to through my infamous clientele, like Dominic Capone III. I think there comes a time in your life when you’ve given all you can give and you decide to take a stand and say “this is what’s left” – visually. Peaceful times, to me, would mean pre-9.11. If you look at my own work pre-9.11 it’s much different than it is now, probably more erotic and less violent. I do sense a revolution coming though. From all the turbulence in the Middle East to our current administration’s trend of nationalizing education, forcing everyone to have healthcare, a middle class steadily sinking into lower class…a revolution definitely is coming.

I.R.- And how about wars and warriors? People like Napoleon? Of course, being Spanish, I dislike Napoleon but other countries call him “hero.” Do you like this topic: WWII, Vietnam or Afghanistan wars?

M.B.- I’m not a personal fan of war for subject matter. I prefer exploring and re-shaping my own “internal wars” but I do appreciate art history and historians. So, for this question I hit up a longtime friend and colleague, Todd Smith, who is an expert on American History, is a National Blue Ribbon High School Social Studies Department Chairperson, Rho Kappa Social Studies Honors Society Advisor and Mock Trial Coach. He shared with me some very interesting insights, as well as some art he personally selected to help illustrate his points. I’m going to quote him directly for you below Isabel.

[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″]Napoleon was considered a hero in France at the turn of the 18th into the 19th century because he brought order out of the chaos of the French Revolution and seemed to be trying to reassert French dominance by conquering Europe. To most of Europe Napoleon was a dictatorial maniac bent on the complete subjugation of Europe under the French flag. Spain in particular felt the brunt of Napoleon’s invasions and was significantly weakened by the experience.[/quote]

When I think of the romanticism of French art at the time, I think of “Napoleon Crossing the Alps” by Jacques-Louis David circa 1800. It best encapsulates French attitudes toward Napoleon.


Francisco De Goya witnessed the French invasion of Spain first hand….”The Third of May, 1808″ shies away from that French Romantic impulse.


Napoleon’s Nose by Salvador Dali kind of demonstrates lingering attitudes toward Napoleon a century and a half after he invaded Spain.” – Todd Smith, c/o Michael Bell.


Enjoy the week, Michael


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