By Christopher White, The Tablet’s National Correspondent
NEW YORK – When Richard Hearns was growing up in the west of Ireland, sketching everything in sight, he never once imagined he’d be painting the official portrait of an Irish American Catholic cardinal.
What began, however, as a personal encounter with Cardinal Timothy Dolan – who, for most people, may be known for being the Archbishop of New York but for Hearns is a longtime friend of his family – has now turned into one of the greatest professional responsibilities of his young life.
In an interview with The Tablet on the eve of the portrait’s unveiling, Hearns said that when visitors “spend time with it, they receive a sensation of a man and his character.”
Hearns’s connection to Cardinal Dolan is through Sister Rosario Delaney, an Irish nun who served as the principal at Cardinal Dolan’s grade school in Missouri, and who also happened to be his Godmother.
As a seminarian in Rome, Cardinal Dolan would often stopover in Ireland to stay with the Delaney family.
Sister Bosco Daly, one of Cardinal Dolan’s grade school teachers, was also a friend to Hearns’s family, and he would later consult with her while doing research before taking his brush to canvas.
Cardinal Dolan got together with Hearns in 2009 and traveled out to his studio after being impressed by paintings in Hearns’s family home.
Hearns recalled that initial meeting where he remembers his studio as being “swollen” with paintings everywhere and a somewhat chaotic scene as he was preparing for a show in Dublin. The busyness of the moment, however, didn’t prevent him from giving the Cardinal a tour of his work – one that would leave a lasting impression.
Cardinal Dolan, who was impressed, invited Hearns to travel to New York with his wife for a visit. They did a year later, and thus began a friendship. Eventually, in 2016, Hearns floated the idea to the Cardinal of letting him paint his portrait.
Hearns, who had seen the paintings of other luminary New York Archbishops, was humbled when Cardinal Dolan agreed to allow him to paint his.
Along with his wife, Hearns traveled to New York that year where Cardinal Dolan stood in his private chapel for over an hour allowing Hearns to fully capture an image he was content to paint.
He joked that it was a challenge to get the gregarious Cardinal to stop talking long enough to keep him still for the task at hand.
Prior to that meeting, he told The Tablet that he had already settled on the pose he wanted the Cardinal to take – one in which his hand is outstretched, welcoming the viewer.
Providentially, he said the lighting that day helped to illuminate the hands more than the face, adding emphasis to Dolan’s invitational pose.
“That’s what I was always after,” he said.
The setting for the portrait is in the Cardinal’s private chapel, a venue Hearns said he knew Cardinal Dolan would be very comfortable in, having already spent time with him there years before when he celebrated a private Mass for Hearns and his wife.
Over the last three years, Hearns has poured his energy into the oil painting, which marks a departure from his other work, which is more abstract in style.
At age 39, he’s widely considered one of Ireland’s most successful up-and-coming artists. Even so, Hearns said that part of his motivation for the project is that it served as “an opportunity to study classical portraiture and opportunity to try and produce something beautiful for my friend.”
The painting, which captures the jovial churchman, smiling with an invitational stance, may be the Cardinal’s official portrait but, even so, Hearns insists that “I wanted an informality to it.”
Earlier this month, Hearns traveled to New York – reaching out to the pilots at Aer Lingus ahead of time to notify them that he would be traveling with the portrait, getting it a first-class upgrade to ride in the cockpit alongside them to ensure its safety.
While Hearns will return to Ireland next month, the painting’s maiden voyage over the Atlantic will also be its last.
Hearns’s work, which is on display at the Sheen Center in Manhattan from May 9-23, is free and open to the public until it travels uptown to the Cardinal’s Madison Avenue residence.
“I know he’s beloved in New York, and among my family and I feel so close to this man,” he said. “I don’t want to tell people what they should take away from it, but I do hope they enjoy the warm aspects of his character through looking at it.”