IN RENAISSANCE PAINTING, chiaroscuro is the dramatic contrast of dark and light. For those who know her, that word could also be used to describe the artist Linda Cosgrove.
A former model, the statuesque Cosgrove is a lighthearted character who paints dark scenes reminiscent of Caravaggio — think illuminated headless saints and unwinged angels set against a mysteriously deep black background. With a quick, honest laugh, she leads guests through her home pointing out 18th-century reliquaries (that may contain vestiges of saintly remains) and gilded Italian candle prickets, while sharing funny anecdotes about family trips to Italy and the trials of hauling home her finds.
Located on a tree-lined street in the Dominican neighborhood, Cosgrove’s Spanish Colonial home features a set of worn wooden front doors brought back from Mexico. Beyond these doors, the large foyer is marked by a series of tableaux designed from ornate architectural pieces and gilded mirrors along with doll-like saint figures and other religious relics. Looking down from the staircase landing are a life-size pair of kneeling figures in their original 17th-century dresses. In the adjacent living room and, every surface is arranged with a curated display of baroque treasures. And in the dining room, an array of Venetian glass and china is paired with Mexican milagros. The overall effect is surprisingly colorful, despite the fact that almost everything is either gold or white.
“People come in here and see all this stuff and they think we must be very religious,” says Cosgrove of the home she and her husband, Perry Burr, have shared for nearly 20 years. “But I am not religious at all, not in the traditional sense. I just think of it as incredibly beautiful handmade art, which just so happens to have been commissioned by the Catholic Church because that was the biggest patron in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.”
For years, Cosgrove has been collecting decorative architectural remnants and relics from Mexico, Latin America and Europe. What began as a curiosity about early Italian crèche figures (traditionally created at Christmastime for an elaborate nativity scene) eventually spiraled into a collection of larger pieces. A gilded vargueno (writing desk) from Spain stands in the dining room, a wrought-iron gate from Mexico takes up an entire wall in the living room, a pair of seven-foot fluted columns from Mexico flank a doorway, and Cosgrove’s treasured remnants from Italy abound.
“I definitely went through a French rococo phase,” Cosgrove says, “but much of it was too perfect, too fussy for me. I gravitate toward the earlier Italianate hand-worked objects because they have an authenticity to them. I prefer the cruder works. In fact, if I could afford it, I’d have Roman stuff all over the place.”
To Cosgrove, it’s not about the pedigree as much as how an object inspires her. As in the artist’s view of her own paintings, which lean in overlapping stacks against the walls, nothing is ever too precious. Despite her clear appreciation for these pricy collectibles’ heritage, she has a surprisingly casual relationship with the pieces she has amassed at far-off flea markets and carefully transported home. As she offers her nickel tour, she picks up an 18th-century bishop’s staff and hands it over to touch. And according to Burr, Cosgrove rearranges the various vignettes almost daily.
“This stuff is part and parcel of what she uses as inspiration for her painting, and she paints every day,” he says. “She takes the Old Master style of painting and makes it contemporary and often surreal. So the culture and the history of these objects are part of her work, but so are the ever-changing compositions.”
It was a stint in Mexico City in the early 1990s that had the greatest impact on Cosgrove’s aesthetic. They couple lived there with their young daughter, Olivia, while Burr worked as a landscape architect on a large-scale project. The family shared an apartment near the Zona Rosa, which at the time held a seedy mix of sex shops and antique stores. At the same time, she began painting in the daylight (during Olivia’s nap time) rather than late at night, discovering a new ability to use the brush to create delicate, realistic lines and patterns.
“It was like the sweet mystery of life revealed. I could finally paint like I’d always wanted to,” Cosgrove says. “We were in Mexico, traveling to dusty little towns where the most beautiful places were the cathedrals and the government buildings and I started collecting things that inspired me — santos and retablos. Those themes, which happen to be religious, carried over when we started traveling to Latin America and Europe.”
It was 2000 when Cosgrove and her family moved to Marin and settled into this gracious 1905 house. Though it was already fully renovated, they updated it little by little over the years, swapping out large windows for French doors throughout and adding patios and decks to connect the main home to Cosgrove’s small painting studio. But the greatest addition has been the ever-changing display of extraordinary crumbling objects that exists amid an ordinary life filled with family photos, a table set for dinner, a proud display of a child’s sculpture. Add to that Cosgrove’s own intense paintings, and it’s the sublime combination of mysterious darkness and pure light.