I had never heard of artist Cristina Fournier Beéche before I visited a friend’s home in the western San José suburb of Escazú, at the end of my first week in Costa Rica. He rents what I suppose you would call a studio apartment attached to a much bigger house belonging to Fournier.
In his apartment, an old bathtub is built into the tiled floor in the lounge, next to a large open window looking out onto the tropical garden. Here, among the star fruit trees, Fournier’s fighting cockerels, ducks, chickens, pedigreed cat and four dogs all potter harmoniously.
In the bathroom, one shares the shower with a giant mosaic mermaid sculpture whose hand reaches out from the shower wall and rather conveniently cups the soap. Above a desk sits an orchid and two miniature drawings of insects within wooden frames.
“Doña Cristina,” my friend told me, was responsible for all of these fascinating touches. He shares lunch with her most Sundays, he said, when they often watch repeats of Hercule Poirot together.
“She’s a national treasure. You should she see her paintings,” he added.
I was invited to lunch that very Sunday, and over a lunch of fish, salad, buttered potatoes and garden-fresh star fruit juice, I realized my friend was right.
Since 1979, Fournier’s paintings have been bought by the Costa Rican government as gifts for King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, Queen Beatrix of Holland and Mikhail Gorbachev of Russia, among other international heavy weights.
Influenced by Renoir, Van Gogh and Monet, her watercolor and oil work focuses on the beauty of her native Costa Rica’s countryside, and has been shown in more than 80 exhibitions worldwide.
“I remember it distinctly,” she said, relating the moment her life as an artist was conceived.“I was 10 years old and was washing my hands in the bathroom before lunch with my parents, blowing bubbles with the soap, when I realized I wanted to be a professional artist. “I decided I wanted to paint for people so they could appreciate and respect our country and its animals. God gave us paradise, and Costa Rica is that paradise – we just don’t always open our eyes to see it. I paint so people can see it.”
Of French-German ancestry, Fournier was born in Costa Rica and grew up in San José’s historic Barrio Amón neighborhood, where she studied at the girl’s school Escuela Perú, as well as at the Alliance Française and LincolnSchool.
In 1960, after completing her fine arts and teaching degrees at the University of Costa Rica, she married and moved with her trainee lawyer husband to Maine, New York, for five years. During this period, she had three children and worked as a children’s book illustrator, a greeting card designer and a textile artist.
“I loved New York but found the climate difficult. By January of the first year, my friends said I had wilted like a tropical flower,” she recalled. “After New York, we moved to Honduras at the end of the ’70s.
That first morning in Honduras, when the birds started singing, I thought, ‘Thank God I am back in Latin America.’”
Returning to Costa Rica, Fournier spent eight years teaching art in San José before dedicating herself full-time to her passion, painting landscapes across Europe and the United States.
Her latest exhibition, an aesthetic tribute to Costa Rica’s wealth of natural beauty, is on display through Oct. 18 at San José’s NationalMuseum. The 20-piece exhibit includes an incomplete mural, stretching the entire length of the museum wall, that has been 15 years in the making so far.
For more on the artist and to see some of her work, visit www.cristinafournier.com.