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Howe, Delmas (b. 1935)  
 
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A prominent American artist, Delmas Howe seeks to visualize gay history by linking the past with the present in intensely , deceptively naturalistic paintings. In paintings of the American West, such as Atlas (1982), he endows cowboys with the heroism and dignity of ancient classical gods, while managing to capture the aura of "whiskey, tobacco, leather, and sweat" that he obviously finds exciting.

Referencing themes from ancient classical mythology and from the Roman Catholic tradition, Howe explores complex psychological issues and urgent social problems, including the impact of AIDS on the gay community.

Background and Early Life

Born in El Paso, Texas, on October 22, 1935, Howe grew up in Hot Springs (renamed Truth or Consequences in 1950), New Mexico. His father was an alcoholic, but it was only later in his life that he realized that his parents had provided a dysfunctional family environment. Believing that formal education was a waste of time, Howe's father encouraged him to become a cowboy and occupied his time with jobs involving "fixing the fence, [and] stuff with animals." Although Howe hated these tasks, he was excited sexually by his father's cowboy friends, and he still cherishes childhood memories of sitting on their laps.

From an early age, Howe liked to draw, and his mother encouraged him to consider the arts, especially music, for a career. In high school, he began playing the bassoon, and, after graduating in 1953, he received a music scholarship to Wichita State University. Earning his bachelor's degree in 1957, he joined the Air Force and spent the next four years playing bassoon in the U.S. Air Force Academy Band at Colorado Springs.

In 1961, Howe went to New York City in order to study with a member of the New York Philharmonic, and he obtained a scholarship for graduate studies in music at Yale University. The following year, without completing his degree at Yale, he accepted a teaching position in Texas. Realizing after three days in the classroom that he did not want to teach, he quit that job and moved back to New York City.

Howe's return to New York in 1962 marked an important point of transition in his life.

Howe chose New York as his destination partly because he felt that it would provide an environment in which he could begin to act upon his sexual and romantic attraction to other men. His exploration of his own sexuality corresponded with the emergence of the gay community in New York from underground clubs and with the flourishing of what Howe has described as an "incredible, sexual party."

Artistic Education and Development

Without abandoning his interest in music, Howe resolved to develop a career in the visual arts, in which he had been interested since childhood. Between 1962 and 1974, he studied painting, drawing, and printmaking at various institutions, but primarily at the Art Students League. While encouraging students to produce work that would express their own individual concerns and identities, the League strongly favored naturalistic styles, even during the period from the 1950s through the 1970s, when abstraction was predominant. In accord with the philosophy of the League, Howe has never tried to keep up with the latest trends being emphasized in art galleries.

Among the twentieth-century artists who influenced him, Howe was especially affected by two painters who also had studied at the Art Students League: Paul Cadmus (1904-1999) and Jared French (1905-1987). Both these artists utilized a Magic Realist style to develop homoerotic themes and to explore complex social and psychological issues. In particular, Cadmus's depictions of urban workers and sailors as simultaneously monumental, earthy, and sensual directly foreshadow Howe's paintings of cowboys.

Throughout his career, Howe has also been profoundly inspired by Renaissance and Baroque works, which were also studied intently by Cadmus and French. Vividly expressing his immediate, sensual response to historical art, Howe has described Renaissance altarpieces as "turgid male flesh rolling off the wall." Further, he maintains that Renaissance art "connects with all of history" through such features as monumental treatment of human figures, carefully balanced compositions, and frieze-like treatment of the picture plane, all ultimately inspired by Egyptian, Greek, and Roman art.

Howe has identified Rogier Van Der Weyden's Descent from the Cross (1535, Prado Museum, Madrid) as a favorite piece, and one that has had an enduring impact on his work. In Howe's The Stripping and other paintings of the Stations of the Cross series, now in progress, the artist has depicted a contemporary gay sacrificial victim who evokes van der Weyden's Christ: at once naturalistic, elegant, sensual, and intensely tragic. In a more general sense, one can note numerous stylistic correlations between Van Der Weyden's altarpiece and such typical examples of Howe's work as Theseus and Perithous at the Chutes (1982). These correlations include naturalistic details; precise outlining of forms; bright, vivid colors; convincing modeling of anatomy; definition of the composition through poses, gestures, and expressions; and a strong emphasis upon the picture plane.

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zoom in
Three paintings by Delmas Howe.
Top: Atlas.
Center: The Gentle Executioner.
Above: Study for Veronica's Kiss.

  
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