Matan Ben-Cnaan is the first artist from Israel to win the annual BP Portrait Award, after being recognised for his neorealist allegorical painting, Annabelle and Guy.

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What do you need to know? Matan Ben Cnaan’s family can be traced back 14 generations to the those who came from Safed in Israel. Safed rose to fame in the 16th century as the centre of Jewish Mysticsm and is forever associated with the Kabbalah and spiritual inquiry. Matan’s grandfather was poor and without the advantage of education, but in his later years became an artist with a diverse collection of art books in his home. It was here that Matan discovered Rembrandt who became his mentor and tutor. Matan’s love of painting was inherited from his grandfather who shortly before he died, Matan’s mother asked her son, aged 11, if he would like his grandfathers shoebox of dried out paints and half dead paintbrushes. Matan never looked back. It was this gift  that hurled him into his the passion which led to this young man becoming the winner of this year’s BP portrait award.

Can you tell me a little about this painting please?

Every painting whether it be a portrait of a landscape is a self portrait as it reflects the self. This is a portrait of two people in the Jezreel valley in Israel  but is also a self portrait of a kind.

Who is it of?

preparatory sketche 2

It’s of an uncle and his niece. I try to understand the rhythm of everyone and everything I paint. Without considering the inner energy you cannot paint the outer.

Who are your strongest teachers and influences?

I learnt by copying Rembrandt but after him,my greatest teacher is music.


preparatory sketche 1

Because it’s the harmony between the parts that matters. Paint is like notes of colour and resonates because of what it next to it… Just like music.  Nothing exists by itself. It is the delicate relationship to another that is all important. In this  portrait  I have tried to consider  the colour of what is next to each colour. It took me a long time to paint.

How long?

A year

Which music do you like.?

I listen to music all the time whilst I paint. I adore Brahms, his sonata in e-flat but I also like Beethoven. When I listen to Brahms it takes me to the most profound place that I can reach.

Where does art fit in?

It’s the combination of the two. Listening to music at the same time as painting makes me become one with the universe. It sharpens my powers of observation.

I understand you completely. It’s sublime and utterly peaceful. Can you define what you want out of life?

Despite my ancestors living in Kabbalist village, I take some of my philosophy from Tibetan Buddhists. I would like my last moment on earth to be peaceful..

How do you think you can do that?

The only way one can achieve that is to live life to the fullest. By that I mean one has to live, not in the past or the future, but in the present. The tool that allows one to to aspire to this is that of music and painting because it is when painting that you exist entirely in the present. Nothing exists outside that moment, mixing paints, laying the brush on the canvas. The moment is now. Nothing else matters.

And after painting, does the mood not extend ?

When I put down my brushes I may have fears for the future or memories of the past sometimes tinged with pain – but when I am painting I have a total awareness and a complete sense of harmony and peacefulness.I am totally in the present.

That’s lovely. Can you describe the happiest moment of your life?


Receiving the prize from a giant like Simon Schama. The whole day was wonderful . I went and sat with a Rembrandt painting in the National Gallery feeling such a sense of gratitude for the years of joy painting has brought me and the revelation that opening the book on Rembandt’s work gave me when I was 11.

And what now?

I look forward to painting a sitter chosen for me by the NPG and to hopefully receive commissions for other paintings in England.