Reimaginings. Then and Now.


In 2020, I offered to recreate two historical family paintings in watercolour for my good friend and wine maker, Carmen von Nell-Breuning, to be hung in her redecorated restaurant in Kasel, Germany. Carmen’s family has been producing wine in the Mosel region since 1670. As the restaurant was connected to her winery, I wanted the artworks to reflect the long history of her family’s presence in the area.

The first painting, “Flösser” (lit. rafter), shows a raft at the junction of the Rhine and Mosel rivers (image below); these huge rafts of felled logs were sailed down the rivers and the logs sold, along with other goods that they carried. It was through rafting that her ancestor, Peter Christian Nell (later ennobled by Emporer Joseph I of Hungary and Bohemia) made his fortune, which he then used to establish the now 354-year-old family winery business.

The second painting depicts Nells Ländchen, a beautiful park on the outskirts of Trier that was once owned by Carmen’s family (image below). When passing through Trier Napoleon stayed at the von Nell house on the estate and was so impressed by the garden that he gifted them a valuable dinner service. In the painting the senior von Nell can be seen with his family showing visitors the splendour of his park. Incidentally, in 2021 I submitted a detail of this work to the public celebrations of Roche’s 125th anniversary and was rewarded with its fleeting display on the side of the Herzog + de Meuron Roche Tower, at an impressive height of 178m.

I converted images of the original oil paintings into monochrome digital prints and then recoloured them with watercolour to give them a translucent, luminous, and modern appearance. The colours are similar to the originals but altered through the effect of the monochrome print. Indeed, this occasionally posed technical challenges as some paint colours did not behave as expected due to the indigo colour of the ink.

As I worked on these two pieces, I found myself being drawn into the history that they represented. The work was slow going, so I had ample time to indulge my imaginings of life from the late 1600s through to the early 1800s. In parallel, I was thinking about how different life is today and wondered what those past souls would think of our life now. The process became a dialogue between then and now.

The new lease of life that my treatment gave to these old paintings was, admittedly, startling. I was surprised at how “alive” they now looked, and how very contemporary. Details that were previously hard to see became visible. By retaining large amounts of the monochrome digital print and limiting the use of strong colour to the main actors in each work, the aesthetic became more photographic and the dynamics more theatrical. Suddenly these works which had been aesthetically and thematically rooted in the past became present; their as-yet unnamed form is the intersection of painting, photography, and printing.

An idea is born

With that wonderous experience under my belt, I was eager to do the same with other historical works, some by famous artists, others by unknown or forgotten ones. My original target for this exhibition was nine works. However, due to the intense focus and the amount of time required to complete each piece, I have managed only four: Thomas Gainsborough, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Pieter Brueghel the Younger and an unlabelled work hung in the Chateau de Seneffe Belgium. The others waiting to be completed include Degas, Constable, Gentileschi, Vermeer and Watteau.

This foray into reimagining the works of old masters has allowed me to explore history through sensory cues rather than historical facts. Much can be learned through the careful study of clothing; social norms and hierarchies can be gleaned by examining the interaction of a painting’s subjects; artefacts provide an insight into daily life and social status.

As I painted the clothing, I was deeply appreciative of the extraordinary labour and skill that went into making the garments by hand, from the weaving of the cloth to the elaborate embroidery and lace, and the gold braiding and aiguillettes. It was eye-breaking work that required every ounce of patience that I had. Despite the intense physical demands, I found myself in awe of the original artisans who created unique buildings and objects that we still inhabit, use, collect, and conserve today.

In fact, it was the lives of those unseen who really caught my imagination. The seamstresses, silver and goldsmiths, stone masons, cabinet makers, lace makers, bookbinders, weavers and the legion of workers and servants who contributed to the follies and luxurious living of the important people who typically are the subjects of paintings prior to the 20th century.

The desuetude of many of these skills and the general demise of durability are lamentable. Everything today feels disposable and transient, consequential only for the moment of fleeting trends which seem to come thicker and ever faster, competing for our over-taxed attention. We are drowning in stuff that is churned out in minutes or hours where once it would have taken weeks or years.

A contemporary compulsion to excessive consumption leaves no place for hand-worked garments, fabrics, books, woodwork, gilding, pargeting, etc: The hand of the creator has been excised. Many traditional trades have disappeared, and we are facing a crisis of resource depletion and environmental degradation from pollution and overuse. Further, the more we consume, the cheaper goods become and subsequently workers suffer wage erosion as manufacturers seek cost savings on the factory floor to compensate for the lower selling prices.

As I sat there painting the beautiful scenes of past lives, I often pondered the disparity between the durability of what was produced then versus now, as well as the shift in values from an elaborated aesthetic largely informed by a belief in honouring a higher glory (e.g., God in the Christian context), to one driven by commercial pragmatism that worships Wall Street.

And I ask myself: What will we leave behind for future generations and what will these artefacts say about our lives and values? These works became for me not just lessons in past practices and values, but a way of questioning our current trajectory.


Scroll down to see a video of the original oil paintings alongside my reimaginings.

The digital images of the original paintings I have used in the creation of my works are all free of copyright.


If you are interested in the works of the others artists I mentioned above, or would like me to recreate any painting that is copyright-free, please get in touch.

Karen Zadra

Reimagining Thomas Gainsborough, The Mall in St. James’s Park, 1783, 2024, watercolour and coloured pencil on digital print on paper. Image size: 76 x 90.5 cm.


Karen Zadra

Reimagining Sir Joshua Reynolds, The Honorable Henry Fane (1739–1802) with Inigo Jones and Charles Blair, 1761-66, 2023, watercolour on digital print on paper. Image size 49.5 x 70.5 cm.


Karen Zadra

Reimagining Pieter Brueghel II, “Saint Paul conduit à Damas après sa conversion”, early 17th century, 2023, watercolour on digital print on paper. Image size: 36 x 50 cm.


Karen Zadra

Reimagining an unlabelled painting, Chateau de Seneffe, Belgium, n.d. 2024, watercolour and coloured pencil on digital print on paper. Image size: 51 x 38 cm.


Karen Zadra

(Artist?), Flösser, c. 19th century, 2020, watercolour on digital print on paper. Collection C. von Nell-Breuning.

Not for sale.


Karen Zadra

(Artist?), Nells Ländchen, c. 19th century, 2020, watercolour on digital print on paper. Collection C. von Nell-Breuning.

Not for sale.