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'Cape Ann without Charlie is hard to imagine'

16-year battle against cancer ends for artist, author Movalli

  • By Gail McCarthy Staff Writer


  • Mar 22, 2016


Courtesy Photo 

Charles Movalli seen here working in his  Western Ave Studio, readies for the show The Beach: New Painings by Charles Movalli at his step-son's gallery BigZanda Gallery.

For Charles Movalli, art was as essential to his life as the air he breathed.

He also had a voracious appetite for books of all kinds. His West Gloucester home contains thousands in several libraries with topics as diverse as the colors on his palette. The ruminations of his mind were incessant and he was always eager to share.

The lifelong artist, and man of letters, died in the early morning hours of Saturday, March 19, sending a shockwave through the Cape Ann artistic community. At the age of 70, he died after a 16-year battle with multiple myeloma, according to his family.

“He never let the disease be part of his life and he didn’t allow it to limit him,” said Dale Ratcliff, a fellow artist and his wife of nearly 25 years. “It’s surreal right now. He had so many plans and so many pictures to paint. Charles is my inspiration, and he’s at the top of his game among the great American artists.”

An early summer garden party and open studio will be planned to celebrate his life.

An award-winning and beloved Cape Ann artist, Movalli’s reputation went beyond this island. His work is exhibited in six galleries from Carmel, California to Boston, in addition to artist organizations including the historic Rockport Art Association and North Shore Arts Association in Gloucester.

He was a Signature Member of the Oil Painters of America. He had received Life Achievement Awards from the Oil Painters of America (1991), Rockport Art Association (1999) and Hudson Valley Art Association (2002). His memberships also included the New England Watercolor Society.

“The loss of Charlie was a shock as he always seemed to beat the odds for so many years,” said Tom Nicholas, an award-winning Rockport artist and close friend. “I asked him about his exceptional constitution and he said he always led his life with the most positive optimism and outlook.”

Nicholas said this optimism was very apparent in all his relationships.

“I always felt his insight and rare talent was right up there with the best of them,” he said. “Cape Ann without Charlie is hard to imagine.”

The Boston Guild of Artists referred to Movalli as one of Cape Ann’s best known painters and teachers, describing his paintings as “electric with movement, color and vibrant light.”

A man of arts and letters

Ratcliff talked about her adventure in life with Movalli and the richness of their life together.

“I felt privileged because he shared so much. He’d read every evening and the next morning, I would get the best book review. He was a real Renaissance man. He loved everything,” she said. “He will always be alive through his work.”

The books he read went well beyond biographies of artists, and included inventors, science and much more.

Movalli’s enthusiasm for all fine arts was infectious, whether he was talking about a historic Cape Ann master painter or a composer.

“Charlie is the only person you could have a three-hour breakfast with and not want to leave,” said Marilyn Swift, a Gloucester artist. “Frankly, he is the most interesting, brilliant and enthusiastic person my husband Larry and I have ever met.”

Movalli attended Clark University where he earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees, after which he earned a doctorate in English from the University of Connecticut.

“When I got out of grad school, I became a painter because there wasn’t any work for Ph.Ds. I went from trying to write stuff to trying to paint things,” he said in an interview with the Times years ago.

As it turned out, he succeeded in both endeavors.

Movalli was an accomplished writer, with more than 80 articles published in the American Artist Magazine, many of which were reprinted in subsequent art books. He also edited nine art books for Watson-Guptill Publications, working with Emile Gruppe, Paul Strisik, Betty Lou Schlemm, Roger Curtis and Claude Croney. Two of his books appeared in Japanese and Chinese editions. He wrote several on Gruppe.

Over time, Movalli gained a reputation as a teacher and lecturer, always filling venues to standing room only. He lectured and conducted art demonstrations at more than 100 different art organizations. He conducted painting workshops in 24 states, Bermuda, Mexico, Canada, England, France and Switzerland. He also was in demand as a juror for the Oil Painters of America.

Among his favorite painters were John Singer Sargent and Joaquín Sorolla of Spain. His family noted that Sargent’s gravestone holds a Latin phrase that translates “to work is to pray.”

‘He got joy from his work’

Ratcliff described Charles as a workaholic, remembering how he liked to assess what he did at the end of each day.

“He was so in love with art. He painted every day, sometimes five, six seven or eight hours a day, and there were times he would take a day off for some venture or other,” she said. “He was truly interested in having people realize their own potential. He got so much joy from his work ethic and wanted to share that.”

Movalli had a gallery on Rocky Neck when he was in his 30s, run by his mother, but he didn’t like the business of selling paintings. He called the gallery “Seven/Eighths” because in his viewpoint, no painting is ever done, said Ratcliff.

Ratcliff recalled the time when Movalli broke his right arm, the arm he painted with, so he began painting with his left until the right healed.

The two had known each other since they were children; they were both members of the Gloucester High School Class of 1963.

She had been previously married for 18 years and was starting to forge a new path when Movalli, a regular contributor to American Artist magazine, stopped in at the Building Center where she was working and asked if he could write an article about her for the magazine. But she did not feel this was a good time for such an article and suggested he check back in a year, and a year to the date he did ask again. In some ways that was a new beginning for the both of them.

Their life together was as colorful as their canvases.

After several years, the couple married on Dec. 11, 1991. For many years they traveled to celebrate their wedding anniversary, including one romantic evening when they danced alone in a castle in Budapest in their hiking boots.

Movalli always thought of inventive ways to share joy. When the couple installed a mantel over the fireplace, Ratcliff woke up one day to find he had glued a tiny turtle at one end and a tiny frog at the other end, appearing as if they were holding up the mantle. They both loved nature, and Movalli even shared his studio space at the house with an orphaned bunny he called Betsy.

They were collectors, whether of tiny Asian vases or carved wooden African animals, and, of course, they loved creating art, spending decades painting together.

The two artists would go out to paint side by side in all seasons and all kinds of weather and conditions. They painted several times in kayaks on Cape Ann. They always had a minivan for their painting excursions.

“I’d be setting up my easel and he’d have an 8-by-10 already done,” Ratcliff said.

Ratcliff described his art as displaying “fresh, expressive brushwork.”

“You get this automatically when working outside because you’re chasing the light. His work represents ‘expressive Impressionism.’ It’s more broadly painted in a painterly way. It is the artist’s personality coming through the brushwork. He’d say, ‘Don’t let the facts get in the way of the truth.’”

A teacher ‘til the end

Jonathan Ratcliff, his stepson, will always remember the man who inspired him in artistic endeavors for his “unending intellectual curiosity.”

“He had a way of talking to someone and getting their story in two hours and he would store this information. That’s part of the reason people liked him because he got people to talk about themselves,” he said.

Movalli’s reputation and skill spread even though he never even had a website created for his artwork.

Ratcliff recalled a time in Vermont when Richard Schmid, one of America’s top artists of the 20th century, introduced Movalli at an event.

“Charlie received a standing ovation and he asked me, ‘Who are they clapping for?,” she recalled.

When asked by others about how long it would take him to paint a painting, he would reply with something like “40 years and two hours,” meaning that the experience of an artist is infused in each artwork.

Over the years, Movalli donated paintings to organizations for fundraising efforts, including the One Fund in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, as well as the two Cape Ann art associations.

His family talked about how he defied statistics related to his prognosis that indicated a two- to four-year life expectancy. He entered into treatment trials that prolonged his life because he responded well to every one, said Ratcliff.

A teacher until the end, she noted that he and Dr. Paul Richardson twice presented to the freshmen class at Harvard Medical School to put a face to a patient for the medical school students in a talk that focused on the relationship between doctors and patients.

Gail McCarthy can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3445, or

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