Muse: Re-reinterpreting Folies Bergere


Click to enlarge image

A few months ago, my collaborator Niki and I were trekking around the city in search of an ornate yet inexpensive antique chair for an upcoming shoot as part of the Muse series. We ventured to the south side of Chicago to a warehouse of old hotel furniture, and then wound our way back up to a few shops on Grand Avenue. While meandering through an architectural salvage and event space, we both at the same moment stood frozen, flashed wide-eyed and knowing glances at each other, and then began to twitter with excitement. We saw the bar and knew it would be the perfect location for our upcoming reinterpretation of the Eduard Manet painting “A Bar at the Folies Bergere” from 1882.

Four months later, Niki and I (in full drag makeup and boy clothes), amidst a typically snowy and frigid Chicago February, began unpacking our gear, setting up the light kit and arranging all of our props. Having rented the space on a day it wasn’t usually open, we mostly had the place to ourselves, except for a couple of staff and the crew of guys redoing the wood floors on the second level.

Often, the shoot process is quite technical and the most time-consuming part is just getting all of the lighting in its ideal location and level. But despite that, Niki and I seem to have our own setup rhythm. Before we know it, with costume on and hat duct taped to my head, we are taking our initial test shots. Well into the shooting process, somewhere between the back and forths of head turns and up and downs of chin and focal points, there are two things that happen – and which have happened in pretty much every shoot we’ve done together. First, we both feel something – a kind of internal “YES!” For me, it’s what we artists call flow. My focus becomes narrow and the volume of my surrounding periphery reduces. A softness settles into my body and there’s a sense of effortless connection and collaboration with Niki. In the process, it feels as if we become one. And it’s usually right after this moment that the second thing happens – we get the giggles. Every. Single. Time. For some unknown reason we just start giggling, and on occasion, have to succumb to a fit of laughter before getting back to the business at hand. Fortunately, we both embrace it as a simple part of the process, and know it’s a likely sign that we’ve got the shot we’re looking for.

© Niki Grangruth & James Kinser

And speaking of process, when I started working on this costume eight years ago, Niki and I had only just begun working together. At that time, I didn’t see any connection between the costume and the Muse project, let alone the Folies Bergere shoot. It was just a costume that I intuitively knew I needed to make. Now, I can’t imagine having done the shoot with anything else.

Another synchronicity at which we marvel, is that the Folies Bergere painting was the first piece that Niki and I attempted to reinterpret. I say “attempted” because, looking back at that original shoot now, it is laughable at how much we had yet to figure out. We simply weren’t as attuned as we are now to the environment or the costume, and my relationship with the camera/viewer was way more timid and less engaged than our work that would follow.

But all these years later, it has been extremely rewarding to have returned to this painting and to have reinterpreted it with a more mature and refined eye. We hope you’ll enjoy the soon-to-come result and this slight peek into the process along the way.

Recent Posts



Nearly two years ago during the chill of winter, upon Niki‘s suggestion, I stopped by the Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago one night to view John Singer Sargent’s painting “Mrs. George Swinton.” At 7.5 feet tall and surrounded by a hefty gilded frame, it is nearly life-sized and retains a commanding presence on the end wall of a long gallery. Upon my first glance, I felt a palpable upwelling of excitement and immediately drew in closer to examine its luminosity, lush details, and painterly quality. Mesmerized, I took a picture of the painting with my phone and texted Niki the with a resounding “Yes! We have to do it.” Shortly thereafter, I started drafting patterns and sewing muslin.

About six months later while celebrating my 40th birthday on a solo trip to Paris, I stopped in a fabric store near the foot of Sacre Coeur in Montmartre. Much like the luminosity of the Sargent painting, the sheen of silk shantung beamed toward me from the wall. Having managed with my rudimentary French skills, I walked out with seven yards of fabric. Upon my return home, the fabric took on a new life that filled me with the same giddiness as my first experience standing in front of the painting.

As we are often prone to doing, we gave the painting/project a nickname. It typically serves as shorthand and also tends to endear us more toward the subject of the painting. Besides, “Portrait of Mrs George Swinton” doesn’t necessarily roll off the tongue, so we opted for Tilda after the actress Tilda Swinton. What I didn’t know, until doing my usual research on the painting, was that Mrs. George Swinton turned out to be the great-grandmother of the actress for whom we nicknamed the project. In fact, as I dug further, I learned that the painting was commissioned by George Swinton’s mother to honor her Scottish politician son’s engagement to socialite and professional singer Elizabeth Ebsworth. It has been noted that the painting took two years to complete because of Sargent’s insistence upon taking breaks to play the piano while Elizabeth would sing. Regardless of timing, Sargent’s skill is not only evidenced through the many lush details present within the painting, he seems to effortlessly capture his subject’s signature poise and beauty—a major reason in our choice to reinterpret the piece.

IMG_4832When I went back to revisit the painting, I began to notice distinct elements of Impressionism in how Sargent rendered the translucent folds of the organza cascading down her arm. Up close, the brush strokes look like abstract squiggles of paint, yet at a distance, a luxurious pouf of iridescent fabric appears. Again, upon further research, I discovered that the portraiture for which he is most well-known composed the majority of his commissioned work. Yet he regularly employed Impressionist techniques in his informal work and landscape paintings. Not surprisingly, at least in hindsight, the portrait of Mrs. George Swinton marries the two approaches with a seamless grace and adeptness.

It likely goes without saying that we are enamored by this painting and much of Sargent’s work. We are excited for the opportunity to hang this piece next to our reinterpretation of A Portrait of Madame X, one of Sargent’s most well-known works. There’s also an element of delight in little secrets that Niki and I share in the process (like the fact that I’m standing on top of two art history books instead of wearing heels in the photo). But those are for telling another time. For now, below is our latest addition to the Muse series. We can only hope our gender-bending reinterpretation would bring honor to the original painting’s creator and subject.


Mrs. George Swinton (after Sargent), 2017
© Niki Grangruth & James Kinser

Wikipedia: John Singer Sargent, George Swinton
Art Institute of Chicago

  1. Why All the Costumes, Makeup, Rhinestones, and Glitter? Leave a reply
  2. Muse: Niki Grangruth & James Kinser Leave a reply
  3. Columbia College Alumni Give Art History a Gender-Identity Makeover Leave a reply
  4. “Muse” Exhibition Interview on Metaphor, Gender, and Collaboration Leave a reply