'Ray Donley's paintings are part of the New Old Masters, a slowly
but steadily emerging trend in contemporary art, involving not so much
a "return to order" as it was once called, but the realization that avant-garde
art has become an institutional cliché and what once looked liked
the clichés of Old Masters are still full of potential.
Donley's style – figurative, dramatic, full of high-contrast lighting – evokes that of the Old Masters, particularly the Dutch and Spanish portraitists of the 17th century, quite deliberately. That was the work that interested him as a young man – painters of the 14th and 15th centuries were, he says, "too Apollonian to me, too statuelike. By the 17th century, the painters looked like they were having fun. They were slapping the paint around." And that's what he sought to emulate when he became a studio art major at the University of Texas. But he couldn't find an instructor willing to help him develop that style, so he switched to art history and began to school himself. Donley calls himself "something of an autodidact," learning how to paint like an Old Master by immersing himself in the work of Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Velázquez, and Frans Hals and absorbing everything he could about their artistry. "My change to art history opened up so many doors aesthetically that I was able to see what I really wanted to do and refine what I wanted to do," Donley says. "I wanted to know the history of painting, the sociology, the phenomenology, the craft of painting, the fact of painting – I wanted to learn and master all of that."