As biblical artist Egbert Modderman paints, he strives to be sincere by staying true to himself and his orthodox Protestant heritage.
It’s a successful approach for the 31-year-old Dutchman. He’s only been painting professionally since 2016, yet he’s had a Dutch-American patron, and a solo show at the Bible Museum in Washington where his works are periodically on display. And this year, Modderman won the prestigious BP Young Artist Award 2020 at the National Portrait Gallery in London for his painting “Restless.”
For Modderman, painting is not just about how the finished product appears but also about approaching the subject with a heart of honesty. “In Dutch, we have this word ‘oprecht,’ and that’s a word I really favor when it comes down to my work because it’s a word that combines honesty, genuineness, but also it’s kind of a sober word,” he said in a telephone interview.
Modderman feels lucky to do what he does; it’s a sentiment he says that keeps him humble.
A Life of Purpose
For the first two years of his working life, Modderman worked at an interior design company. He seemed destined to become an interior designer, but he found the work unfulfilling. He envied medical and law enforcement professionals, and that jealousy created a sense of urgency for him to find his own life purpose.
“I felt that if I had to work for 40 or 50 years, I really wouldn’t be able to persist and keep doing that if I didn’t have that sense of value in what I did,” he said.
Painting had always captivated him, so he decided—even though he had no painting skills—to try painting for two years to see if it gave him the sense of purpose he sorely sought.
In 2014, he began learning to paint by attending local classes at a classical art gallery for a year, and then in the summer of 2015, he had a short stint at the Florence Academy of Art in Florence, Italy. Despite his training, Modderman says he’s largely learned to paint through the painting process itself, something he continues to do.
In 2016, St. Martin’s Church in Groningen, Netherlands, which is a traditional Protestant church, commissioned Modderman to paint St. Martin. He felt a distinct tension between how to acknowledge the story of St. Martin (a specifically Catholic story) and how to present the painting from a Protestant perspective, he said.
“And that really got me thinking, because the Protestant church doesn’t really have a very strong tradition when it comes down to the combination of art and the church itself. Of course, there is Rembrandt, who painted biblical stories, but it really wasn’t from a strictly Protestant mindset,” Modderman explained.
Painting St. Martin made Modderman realize that his orthodox Protestant faith offered a unique perspective for biblical art. “There’s a world of biblical stories out there. And if I make Protestant paintings about them, then I will add another version of all these types of paintings, instead of just simply replicating how they’ve already been depicted so many times,” he said.
‘The Beauty of Religion’
Modderman believes there’s been a decline of Christianity in the Netherlands for last 30 to 40 years. He believes that the declining number of Dutch Christians is a culmination of the past 50 or 60 years of negative attitudes toward the church. In the 1950s and 1960s, some saw the traditional church with its strict Christian doctrines as something that holds society back rather than what helps society progress.
Modderman hopes that by portraying the “good and moral good” in the biblical stories, he might counteract some of this past negativity. “Because here I am, a fairly young man, still drawing inspiration from it, so there’s just a real beauty to those stories,” he said.
In addition, he sees his biblical paintings as a fairly neutral medium that segues viewers to openly talk about the story depicted. Whereas “if you were to have a discussion about religion, a lot of people tend to get very emotional because they bring a lot of their own personal baggage into the conversation,” he said.
For his first solo show, “The Beauty of Religion,” at St. Martin’s Church in Groningen, Modderman created 10 tall biblical paintings.
“I miraculously sold everything, and quite a lot of them were actually sold to people who weren’t Christian at all. And I was really pleased about that because that means that they can be appreciated, not simply because somebody shares a certain idea about Christianity but because the theme itself is relatable to a lot of people,” he said.
One of the exhibition visitors was a Dutch-American gentleman who had been showing his wife around Groningen, the city where he was born. The man later called Modderman, offering to promote his paintings in the United States. Over the next few years, he became Modderman’s patron, and Modderman periodically visited him, spending a few months painting in North Carolina.
Finding Local Biblical Characters
For his paintings, Modderman first figures out the most interesting, intense moment in the biblical story he’s going to paint. Then he scours his hometown of Groningen to find the right models to convey the characters.
Oetze, a bricklayer, posed for Modderman’s award-winning painting “Restless.” Modderman was drinking tea at home when he spotted Oetze working just 200 yards or so away. “He had a big orange vest and helmet on, but he had a magnificent beard and this kind of aged face. I really felt he was the perfect person to paint for the story I had in mind,” he said.
Immediately, Modderman walked up to Oetze, showed him a selection of his paintings on his phone, and explained that he’d very much like to paint him. That same day, Oetze visited Modderman’s studio during his lunch break and agreed to pose for the painting.
Modderman dresses his models in pieces of fabric, allowing viewers to focus on the story itself rather than have any hint of the time period to distract them. He then sketches a variety of poses, and only when he’s happy with the composition that conveys the strongest emotion does he paint.
Whenever Modderman starts a painting, he has a certain idea of how the painting is going to feel and look, but the painting process always surprises him.
“Every painting is a confrontation with my limitations,” he said.
He spends the first few weeks setting up the foundational paint layers. But not until the last week does he “accidentally start making all the right choices,” he said. “So there’s never really a feeling of much control involved. You’re always kind of surprising yourself, like, ‘Oh, just a little dab of lightness here and a little dab of darkness here. Oh, wow! That actually seems to work out.’”
Modderman gets really enthusiastic painting this way, as the painting eventually approaches his goal. But he says that it never quite matches his original intent or feeling.
“For me, the moment when I finish a painting, at a certain point, I think this is the best I can do. I have to let it go, [and] I’m kind of left with this almost itch that needs to be scratched. … So as soon as possible, so usually within a day or two, I start another one,” he said.
To find out more about Egbert Modderman’s art, visit www.EgbertModderman.NL