A larger image of the painting7 October 2012
Jerry Ross's Portrait of Fiorella is a depiction of a woman that defies popular femininity yet defines who she is, as a woman, boldly. The label describes it as an oil painting of an Italian nonna from Tuscany, thereby setting up the viewer to witness her as not only female but as a matriarchal figure. However, she is depicted outside of any motherly or grandmotherly setting, standing alone, with an expression that is the antithesis of the soft, submissive, and nurturing female stereotype.
The composition serves to assert Fiorella as a strong presence in conjunction with an expression that betrays an unyielding psychological force. Ross placed Fiorella in the upmost foreground, pushed against the pictorial plane. Although her body is turned away to the right slightly, her face is shown frontally, heatedly returning the gaze of the viewer. There is no avoiding her gripping stare. Her body is heavily obscured by bulky garments that are hastily applied and incompletely construed -- even her hand is hardly distinguishable. The most illustrative elements of her clothing are her layered collars, which flare out from her neck framing her face like the foliage of a flower. The face, the focal point of portraiture, is the most clearly articulated feature in the work. She wears a firm visage belying both age and a boldness which seems to challenge any opposition to her individual will. Her wrinkles, sketchily applied in Ross's painterly style, accentuate her grimace. Her mouth is pursed and downturned, her brow furrowed, her cheeks sagging with years. Fiorella's sharp occhi marroni shine with light, life and ample spirit. No claim against her status as an Italian nonna could stand up to the self-assurance in her stature and expression.
The gesticulation of Ross's brushstrokes emphasizes his expressionistic use of color, the symbolism of which reaffirms the contrast between the concept of woman and the authenticity of an individualized woman. The delicate peach, salmon, lavender and rose shades, highly feminized hues, make up the indeterminate background in a patchwork of hastily applied splotches of color. The complete lack of setting or spatial reference serves to highlight Fiorella as the focal point. Nothing draws the eye from her face. The feminine color scheme is reflected in her skin tone and contrasts the sternness of her expression. Her fierce presence is juxtaposed by the soft sweetness of Ross's chosen color palette and emphasized by the texture of his strokes. These formal elements bring vitality to the surface of the work and a greater sense of the subject portrayed.
Ross's style is self-proclaimed as American Verismo. He explains it as dal vero (after life or after truth) within which he attempts to paint everyday things, people, and places with a "poetic realism" the influence for which he finds in Italian art from all ages. 2 It is fitting then that the heroine in this work is Italian. His attempt to portray truth is evinced in her psychologically powerful presence as an old but firm woman backed by years of experience, the marks of which are tallied in the lines of her face. This is reminiscent of the ideals behind Roman Republican Veristic sculpture described by Fred Kleiner as, "literal reproductions of individual faces, without any hint of an attempt on the part of the sculptor to beautify the appearance of those portrayed." 3 Signs of age were venerable proofs of a life long-lived in service of the state. In the case of Fiorella her hard earned signs of age come from her own experience of life long-lived in service to her family as nonna and donna. Ross's depiction captures what it means to be a woman in reality. She is far from a shallow and fanciful reproduction of an ideal, but perhaps the reality Ross is trying to convey is more complex than an outright rejection of a normative female model. She is an amalgam of softness (as evoked in the color) and severity (in form and features) both coming together to form this woman's persona as understood and represented by Ross as observed dal vero.