Side Image: 

Duane Brissette (American, b. 1939), Moonrise, 1981, acrylic, 21½ x 25½ inches. Purchase, through funds from Mr. and Mrs. Frederic F. Renfert. Collection of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.

About the Artist
Duane Brissette

Duane Brissette was born in 1932 in Cloquet, Minnesota, a community with a current population of about 14,500 residents that lies twenty-two miles west of Duluth. Forestry industries have been an important source of employment and economic development from the time that the city was incorporated in 1894. Brissette’s father, a gifted musician, worked in the mills to support his family.

Brissette attended public grade school, but was sent to the preparatory school at Saint John's Abbey to complete his high school education with the parental expectation that he would enter religious service. He enjoyed the woods and lakes that surrounded the abbey and discovered illustrated manuscripts in its library. By the time he was eighteen, he knew he wanted to be an artist and soon left the abbey to pursue schooling at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. He left the university after a few years and went on to a successful career as a creative director for various advertising agencies as well as a writer and designer of advertising for newspapers. Throughout his life, he has continued to make paintings that incline toward surrealism with their heightened sense of reality and use of idiosyncratic symbolism. He resides in Sauk City, Wisconsin, where he has lived for the past twenty-five years.

Key Ideas
  • Use of symbols to convey ideas
  • Perspective or point of view in crafting a narrative
  • Autobiography and memory as a springboard for creative expression
  • Conflict and reconciliation in personal relationships
Discussion Questions
  • How would you describe the scene that is depicted in Moonrise?
  • What has the artist chosen to emphasize in the painting and how has he achieved it?
  • How would you describe the relationship between the man and the panther? What in the painting makes you say that? If you were to imagine a dialogue between them, what would they say?
  • What is the point of view of each of the characters in the painting? What might be their perspective on the drama that is about to unfold?
  • The artist has said that Moonrise is the first in a trilogy, or three works of art, that depict a dream he had experienced. What action do you imagine will take place in the second and third paintings? How might the story continue?

On the Artist:

  • emphasis special attention or importance given to something
  • interpretation an explanation of the meaning of another's artistic or creative work
  • perspective the relationship in which a subject or its parts are viewed mentally
  • moonrise the rising of the moon above the horizon
  • surreal having the disorienting, hallucinatory quality of a dream; unreal; fantastic
  • trilogy a series or group of three things that are individually complete yet related in theme or subject

What's Going on Here? Stories in Art

In Moonrise, an apparently festive occasion—people arriving at a brightly lit pavilion for a night of dancing—forms the backdrop for a potentially dangerous encounter. The action takes place in the bucolic surroundings of a lakeside resort. Stars twinkle in the sky as moonlit clouds float serenely overhead. The perfectly round shapes of shrubbery echo the rhythms of the clouds while motionless tree canopies suggest the calm night air. The glow of the lights inside the building seems to beckon the people on the lawn to come inside. The moon, which is hidden from view, illuminates the scene. 

In contrast to the happy occasion of a community dance, a tense narrative is taking shape in the painting’s foreground. Standing within the walls of a dark ravine is a man in a suit who is carrying a briefcase. To his left, the figure of a lithe panther emerges from its den. They stare at one another, the man frozen in place at the perilous situation in which he has found himself. His right arm is lifted as if in a gesture of self-defense. Two red rabbits observe the scene from the security of the shrubbery that lines the ravine. 

A sense of entrapment is suggested by the diagonal lines formed by the shrubbery and the jagged red line that runs along the edge of the ravine. Feelings of disquiet and foreboding are called forth by the strong contrasts of light and dark; the complementary colors of blue and orange, green and yellow; and the juxtaposition of man and panther. There is a heightened reality to the scene, as if it might represent a dream or a nightmare. 

According to the artist, Moonrise is the first in a trilogy of works that that illustrates a coherent dream in which the antagonist progresses from being "unconscious" of his actions to fully aware and accepting of responsibility. In a prelude to Moonrise, the figure of the man has antagonized the panther by having deliberately thrown a rock into its den. Moonrise depicts the moment when he realizes his mistake and the panther emerges to confront its antagonist. In the final work in the trilogy, the man is held accountable for his actions and finds peace and reconciliation through humility and understanding. 

The setting for Moonrise is based on a resort on the south shore of Round Lake in Minnesota that Brissette had visited during childhood family vacations. According to the artist, Round Lake had a pavilion similar to the building pictured in his painting. He remembers the three-story dance hall as "mysterious and abandoned" and as a young boy thought it was strange that people would enjoy attending a dance there. The red rabbits that appear in the painting are a recurring symbol that represent a protected innocence; as described by the artist, "Wild things go on around them and they are not affected or injured" by the activity that is taking place. The moon referenced in the painting's title and the presence of a feline are symbolic of the feminine gender. 

Although originating from a dream that has specific meaning for Brissette, Moonrise lends itself to multiple interpretations. "Art should be expansive," the artist says, "a piece of art acquires content as it lives."