Provenance: Private Collection, Paris
Painting a portrait is a give and take of ideas and emotions, of statements and restatements, of careful questions and poised replies, a debate, perhaps a duel — with thrust and parry — between two personalities. Obviously artist and sitter alike offer unique contributions to the finished work of art. Whenever Vitalis remembers wartime, he feels certain sadness. It was in prison however that he found real admirers.
He once did the backdrop for their revue and drama. One day, the Commandant of the stalag found out that he knew how to paint portraits. From that time on, Vitalis began receiving not only extra packages of food from the Red Cross but also cigars from the Commandant. The war years accentuated the human interest in the works of Macario Vitalis as he engaged in painting portraits during his internment in a German concentration camp in occupied France.
One extant portrait from those years is this work, An American Shoeshine Boy” showing a straightforward and realistic approach to the subject. Was the shoeshine boy among the people whom Vitalis encountered in prison? Was he black? Is the portrait to be a memorial? A stay of mortality? His eye stares at the viewer saying nothing about his circumstances. His candor is cool and detached. The subject seems to be portrayed never to escape identification with his surroundings.
The color of the backdrop, instead of being decoratively beautiful, seems moody, the figurative simple and heavy handed. Yet the picture’s greatness lies in its ability to stir us to think beyond the limits of the subjects visual circumstances. The attraction of a really good “primitive” painting is that the innate creative sensitivity of the artist speaks so directly and purely. Whereas other painters would intensify details, Vitalis eliminates them. The man wears what looks like a black version of the hart of Van Gogh’s “Doctor Gachet”. He felt rather sad when he was finally freed, after becoming used to prison life for years. It was not only because he had befriended most of his jailmates. More than that, where could he find free board except in jail? However, he was able to survive that somehow.