If I could fancy a guess, I would say that Fleur Cowles, accomplished artist, writer and editor of innovative lifestyle magazine of the 50’s, Flair, would wish to be reincarnated as a cheetah. Lest you think that this is an odd way to begin an article, she started it–years ago–with her book, People as Animals, for which she asked one hundred celebrities that very question.
In building my case, I would begin with the fact that the cheetah, and other like jungle cats, have appeared frequently in her colorful acrylics for the last four decades, and are inevitably surrounded by les fleurs-flowers, in an artistic style she calls ‘magical realism’. As we perch in New York City’s swanky Lowell Hotel ‘Fleur Cowles Garden Suite’, so dedicated on a brass plate adorning the door, Fleur describes fondly the cheetah as having “beautiful movement, grace, elegance, speed and this ability to leap through space.”
One would think that she had seen countless jungle cats in her many years, upon which to base her renditions, but “no”, she says; she has not seen these cats on safari-in their natural habitats. However, she adds that fairly recently, Prince Rainier of Monaco, a friend, brought his own tamed lion to her for her to inspect, knowing of her affinity for the beasts. Fleur’s charmingly regal husband, Tom Montague Meyer adds that there was an Abyssinian cat in their London townhouse, who could recognize Fleur’s steps when coming home, and would like clock-work run down the stairs, make its presence known, then run up and wait to jump on the table where Fleur would write. “The two would stare at each other,” Meyer recounted, and then ventured, “I think that’s when Fleur got a real appreciation of the feline form.”
“All of my artwork comes from my imagination,” Fleur insists. She does not paint from books or subjects in front of her (including the Abyssinian cat-she was writing not painting when those meetings would take place), but renders her own impressions, her own vision with a seasoned journalist’s eye; sketching an idea in paint and proceeding to add to it depth and color.
Fleur can often be found in her English country house, her weekend retreat from the bustle of London, sitting and chatting of the weeks’ events with friends while nonchalantly-naturally-dabbing her paintbrush into the browns of a lion’s ruff, lush greens of vegetation, and the striking reds, oranges and pinks of a bouquet of flowers overlaying the wild of the African bush. One could say that she has a tendency to ‘Fleurify’ her subjects.
Never lifting a paintbrush until in her 40’s, Fleur says that she finds painting quite relaxing, however, one would never guess that, considering the self-proclaimed ‘weekend painter’ created all 50 of her works exhibited in Manhattan’s toney Wildenstein Gallery within the past year. Recognizing her contribution to animal-kind; her paintings of wild animals, books on art and animals, and fundraising to benefit endangered species, her recent exhibition at the Wildenstein Gallery, entitled ‘Flair for Wildlife’ began with a special preview showing–to benefit the Wildlife Conservation Center, an organization that runs the Bronx Zoo, New York Aquarium, and works to save wildlife and wild lands throughout the world.
Fleur was never formally schooled in painting and seemed to fall into it by selective happenstance, were there such a thing. In the early 60’s, Fleur got her first big break in the New York art world. With a painting she had done on a small canvas of pink flowers floating in the air, Fleur impressed the right people in Manhattan’s art community.
She had several showings at the Hammer Gallery throughout the 60’s and 70’s. In her 1967 exhibition at this well-known gallery, Victor Hammer said of her work, “Fleur Cowles brings to her canvases a synthesis of her lifetime experience as an editor, author, and journalist, and a profound perception of beauty in natural phenomena. . .[s]he paints all of the members of the feline family with much affection and verisimilitude, contrasted with foliage in patterns that are always visually fluent and highly sophisticated.”
Early on in her painting career, she was asked to participate in the VII Biennial Group Art exhibition in São Paolo, Brazil, where her paintings were grouped in the ‘Surrealism and Fantastic Art’ section, alongside of works by Ernst, Dali, Picasso, Chagall, Klee, Magritte, Delvaux, and Duchamps. Her brightly colored works were described by one critic as “the innocent among the wicked.”
To date, Fleur has had 58 one-woman art exhibitions throughout the world, in not as many years.
Selection is a powerful word for Fleur. She affirms that she has selected all of her experiences in life-that is, she is in the front seat driving (either on the left side or the right side depending on which side of the pond she finds herself). Fleur Cowles is not just along for the ride.
Fleur is a woman who has led, and continues to lead an extraordinary life. Before taking up painting, Fleur Cowles worked her way up from associate editor of Look magazine, where she proved herself by increasing the magazine’s readership to over 6 million people. Look was a general interest family magazine-in the ranks of Life, Colliers and the Saturday Evening Post. The magazine’s owner, Mike Cowles, Fleur’s first husband, was so impressed by her ingenuity and success with Look, that he gave her a chance to begin her own magazine, and that was Flair. Flair, which debuted in 1950, has been described as a “celebration of the art, fashion, decor, entertainment, travel, and literature reflecting life in the 1950’s,” notable for its rejection of magazine standards. She changed the form of the magazine, some say, she made the magazine into a piece of art. With peek-a-boo cutouts-in one issue of binoculars through the magazine’s pages, to end at a beautiful woman on the beach; with odd shaped pages–some small-paged bound in booklets (one of the most famous was Saul Steinberg’s artistic transformation of everyday objects into other objects, more complex and distinctive) and some large sized fold outs; and with changing typography based upon the magazine’s content, Flair broke all the rules with, well flair. Fleur introduced the element of surprise to the magazine, sure to attract the attention of a newsstand passerby.
Fleur also worked on another magazine, Quick, which was a pocket sized news digest, but it did not take off. Fleur took risks with her ideas, and setting popularity aside, they were always innovative. Although her most famous venture, Flair, lasted just a year, it made an indelible mark on the magazine industry, some saying that Flair was ahead of its time, and perhaps still is, as many note, no other magazine has picked up where Flair left off.
Through her tenure in the magazine business, Fleur got to know everyone-the artists, and writers of her time, as well as the Hollywood stars and starlets, politicians and dignitaries. The greats were all in her magazines, including playwright Tennessee Williams, the Duchess of Windsor, Colette, and French poet, Jean Cocteau. Friend and confidant to Salvador Dali, Fleur wrote the first authorized biography of the man who told her that “no one knows me better.”
In her spare time, between writing, editing, painting and socializing, Fleur also served as an ambassador to the United States to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.
One begins to wonder after hearing this magical adventure that Fleur Cowles calls her life, how is she able to do it all? She implores that her fostering of multiple talents and disciplines has been the result of not cluttering her mind, but focusing on exactly what she wants to do moment by moment. As proof, she offers, “When I was thirteen years old, I was shown a list of numbers written on a piece of paper– I chose to memorize them. An old man told me I was wasting my time.” Her point was that clearly those particular numbers at the time were irrelevant, but the fact that she could selectively remember, focus so strongly to engage what she calls her “total recall” was to be invaluable throughout her life, and assisted her success on many fronts. Seamlessly remembering dates, names, social events, weddings, births, marriages, heartbreaks, as well the slightly crooked beak of a bird, the curve of an elephants’ trunk and the tear mark beneath the eye of a cheetah, would all come into play again and again throughout her life and careers.
“I’ve been blessed,” Fleur concedes, and reflects upon how she once told someone how she wanted to be thought of and remembered; as “one who made friends and kept them” – also the title of one of her books.
Amongst the many groupings of roses and peonies and other festive delights elegantly dispersed throughout the Garden Suite, and the striking floral and animal Fleur Cowles originals decorating the walls, we got back to the subject of her art — thus, looking to one of her paintings, I inquired upon the significance of the blossoms floating over her wild animal subjects. What was the meaning of it all? What was she trying to say?
Simply put, Fleur answers, “I can’t imagine life without flowers.”
To that I say, rest assured; between the friends that she made and kept, the wildlife that she promotes and supports in her art and life, and those who seek the courage to pick up a paintbrush at age forty, there are many who can’t imagine a world without Fleur!