By Allison Plitt
To say that St. Albans artist Grace Braithwaite is a Francophile is an understatement. Her home is painted in the pink pastel color that one sees on the homes in southeastern France, there are bottles of Perrier in her refrigerator and she easily recognizes George Gershwin’s classical tune “An American in Paris” on the radio.
Yet the real testament to her love of all things French are the countless canvases in her home that she has painted in the same French Impressionist style of master painters such as Claude Monet, Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Paul Cezanne, Henri Matisse and Andre Derain.
In fact, she has visited their homes in France to derive inspiration for her own work. Most of these homes lie in the southeastern region of France called Provence, which provided scenery for many impressionist landscape paintings.
To understand Braithwaite’s feelings toward France, one needs only look back to the place where she grew up.
“Where we lived in Harlem, the buildings were all gray, dark brown, brick or whatever,” she said. “When I visited France and saw places like Nice and Monaco, I just loved the colors of the pink homes, the yellow homes, the beautiful flowers. I just thought it was — not heaven, but almost, just glorious. So for me it was the joy of the color.”
Just as the impressionist painters used vibrant color and light to depict their subject matter, Braithwaite has infused this technique into her paintings to bring an uplifting emotion to her viewers.
“When people see my paintings, I want them to feel the happiness there is, because there is so much unhappiness all around,” she mused. “People are not employed. They’re looking for jobs. Winter is not a good time when people feel happy. They feel depressed. So if you see something that brings you joy, have it around you.”
Braithwaite’s career path as a painter was an unlikely one. Growing up poor in Harlem, she was the eldest of nine children. Despite her family’s circumstances, her parents always made sure their children found a creative niche for themselves. All of the children learned to sing and play piano, some of them painted and others learned how to make and tailor clothing.
Although Braithwaite declined a full-tuition scholarship to Howard University for voice, she says she has no regrets about her decision. She believes her first trip to France in the 1960’s was her “destiny,” which has led her to a fulfilling part-time career as a painter.
Besides immersing herself in art classes and exhibiting her work throughout New York, she has also participated in shows in Chicago and Provence, France.
Currently, Braithwaite is studying Japanese printmaking, which also played an influential role in the development of the Impressionist movement. In addition, she hopes to assemble a book of her paintings as a chronological account of her life.
No matter what her plans may be, Braithwaite always brings a passionate energy to her creations.
“There’s a spirit inside that moves you. Not everybody has it. I know I have it,” she said. “You’re not looking for perfection, the perfect thing. You’re looking for the joy of the color that brings excitement to you and you hope it brings excitement to everybody.”