When he first stepped into the Sistine Chapel in the summer of 1985, he had his camera ready to take a shot of himself—a souvenir to remember this unprecedented opportunity. Under his mentor’s recommendation, he had joined a team of international experts tasked with restoring the building’s famous ceiling.
But before he could snap his memento, a representative of the corporation whose funding of the project allowed it sole filming rights, gently stopped his efforts. Despite this initial setback, however, for the next several weeks, the Rev. Oscar Magnan would scale the metal scaffolding and repair “inch by inch” Michelangelo’s historical frescoes.
This Saint Peter’s University fine arts professor and Jesuit has been a member of the faculty for more than 25 years. And while today, he is perhaps best known on-campus for the figure drawing class he offers each spring— a course which features live nude models—his expertise in drawing, painting, and restoring the human figure goes back to his childhood.
“I was painting on walls and things like that. Or drawing,” he said. “And my mother said: ‘No, this have to end.’”
Thus, at seven years old, Magnan found himself enrolled in an adult art school that would hopefully provide an outlet for his creative vandalism at home.
“They let me be there for a little while doing circles and things like that. But then afterwards, they realized that I could draw,” he said. From that point forward, he began sketching the same human subjects as his older classmates.
And that affinity for the arts seemed to run in his blood.
“In my family, everybody was a dancer,” he remarked. “My grandmother was a dancer, my mother a dancer, my sister a dancer.”
The son of a French man and a Swedish woman, Magnan grew up across Europe as well as in the United States and Cuba, a childhood that earned the man an accent as heavy as it is unique.
“I don’t have roots of any place,” he said. But, despite that, he calls himself an American and has found his home in Jersey City since the 1980s.
When one enters his workspace, the Oscar Magnan Studio in Rankin Hall at Saint Peter’s University, the sheer amount of artwork is the first feature to become apparent. Painstakingly arranged sculptures and busts of all styles line filing cabinets and shelves, and tall racks of Magnan’s own oil paintings stretch from floor to ceiling. Along the walls are other paintings, including a small oil portrait of a muscular man with piercing eyes and a picture of a beautiful woman with dark hair, a study of the Medea of Greek mythology.
Near a display of religious pieces, one of which is a centuries-old sculpture of the crucified Jesus, hangs another of Magnan’s paintings titled “The Judgment of Paris.” It depicts the titular Paris of antiquity as a woman, rather than a man, who must choose the fairest from among three men, rather than three goddesses. This painting is one of many experimenting with classical, recognizable themes, Magnan said.
“Slowly, slowly, slowly, I now came back to the figurative painting of my early childhood, when I painted figuratives,” Magnan said.
However, this return to his roots came after a long history of creating abstract pieces.
“His earlier career was mainly ‘straight-edge abstract’ painting, which were even employed as illustrations in various journals,” Jon Boshart, chair of SPU’s Fine Arts Department, said.
While studying in Toronto, Magnan found himself the single unknown artist among an exhibition of masters after choosing to display his painting “Resurrection” in a show he himself had organized.
“It was in the best newspaper and the best critic of Toronto,” Magnan said. “And he said that this was the best painting in the whole exhibit. Immediately, it started, the galleries, the strong galleries to approach me because that critic said that. Who that guy is? Who that little guy is?”
Throughout his career, Magnan has exhibited in one-man and group shows throughout Europe and the United States. He recalls one New York gallery in which nearly all of his 30 pieces on display were sold for between $5,000 and $10,000.
But despite his successes, Magnan still finds his greatest joys in teaching and in caring for each individual student who passes through his classroom.
“I think it’s not only me. I think Jesuits and lay teachers, they are all the same,” he said. “They take care of people individually very much. It would be very rare here, I find, that a professor or a teacher doesn’t take care of their students.”
But despite his long history as a teaching priest, Magnan’s experiences with the Jesuit order remain interesting ones.
“I went to a Jesuit school, but I was not a pious child. At all. I never knew how to serve mass. I was never that acolyte. I didn’t want to. I was very free.”
All the same, as he neared adulthood, he actually fled his home to enter the Jesuit order against his mother’s wishes.
“They went to the police to pick me up because I was a minor,” Magnan explained. “They sent a cousin of mine with the police. This cousin of mine is very pro-Jesuit. And he said: ‘I am not going to force you if you don’t want to leave.’ And I said, ‘I don’t want to leave.’”
The Jesuits’ open-mindedness and willingness to work directly with the people they serve attracted Magnan to the order.
“To be always with a uniform and the collar and the things, it’s not for me,” he said, gesturing at the gray shirt hanging off his slight frame. “I don’t think it’s bad. Whoever liked it, it’s very good.”
All the same, his mother’s disapproval of his decision began a period in which he and his parents did not speak to one another for five years.
“You cannot force anybody into a life that they have not been called,” Magnan said. And, according to his students, he extends this philosophy even into his classroom.
“He’s very talented, and he doesn’t force you to draw or paint the way he would,” senior Siobhan Gordon said. “He allows your artistic vision to come out in your own paintings, and he’s incredibly supportive. And no matter what, he absolutely loves what you’re doing.”
On campus, Magnan is also curator of the university’s art gallery on the lower level of the O’Toole Library. Each spring, he organizes an exhibition there open to the general public.
The Rev. Mark DeStephano, chair of the Modern and Classical Languages Department, provides the catering for these events and recalls attending a similar one at another institution with Magnan.
“We were shocked that the refreshments served were crackers, and little pieces of cheese, and soda poured from plastic bottles,” DeStephano said. “Neither of us could stop laughing, comparing the fare put forth at ‘poor little Saint Peter’s’ with that of our ‘rich relatives!’”
In addition to organizing this event, Magnan also maintains the art collection on campus, but because Saint Peter’s lacks a museum, most of the works he acquires are displayed in various campus offices.
“But what happened is that many times, the offices will get rid of them, or they give them away,” Magnan remarked. “I found in the garbage can in 51 Glenwood two paintings, $12,000 each.”
Because of such occurrences, the collection’s size has considerably dwindled, Magnan noted. All the same, his affection for the student body is what has kept him at Saint Peter’s for so many years.
“I liked it here because they might not have the sophistication that I noticed that they have in the other places either. They don’t have this sophistication sometimes. But they are willing to work, and one of the things that I still say to this place has is the cura personalis. That I take care of you. You are not a number.”