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Visitors become part of the artwork at the MFA

Artist Warren Prosperi signs “Museum Epiphany III,’’ which was unveiled at the MFA Thursday night.
Artist Warren Prosperi signs “Museum Epiphany III,’’ which was unveiled at the MFA Thursday night.(David L. Ryan/Globe Staff)

WHO

Warren Prosperi

WHAT

The 63-year-old Southborough artist’s “Museum Epiphany III” was unveiled Thursday in the Museum of Fine Arts’ Art of the Americas Wing. The realist painting portrays visitors amid the 19th-century canvases and sculptures of the wing’s Penny and Jeff Vinik Gallery, where the piece now hangs. This is Prosperi’s first painting to be displayed in a museum.

Q. How did you learn to paint classical artwork?

A. There was nobody teaching it in the United States in 1968 when I was 19, so I started copying paintings in the Museum of Fine Arts. The craft was dead, and the only way you could dig it up was to take a look at the people who knew how to do it. Over a course of four years, I copied Rembrandt, Degas, and Chardin.

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Q. What was the inspiration for “Museum Epiphany III”?

A. Those years I spent studying and copying at the MFA, I got to see the life of the museum. There’s different types of people who are always moving through the gallery. At one point I said, “All this vibrant life in the museum is a painting in and of itself.” So I started a group of paintings about the works of art, and the museumgoers, and their relationship to each other.

Q. How did you come up with the name “Museum Epiphany”?

A. The idea centers on the psychology of the museum and the moments when you’re standing in front of a great work of art, and you become transported back in time — just caught up in the mind of the artist. While I was copying, I noticed museumgoers have that transporting experience, those epiphanies.

Q. How did your piece end up at the MFA?

A. [MFA director Malcolm] Rogers saw “Museum Epiphany I” and “Museum Epiphany II,” which MFA trustee David Croll purchased. He said it would be wonderful to commemorate the new wing with one of my “Epiphanies.” I had actually already started planning “Museum Epiphany III” because the room inspired me. I told Rogers, “Funny thing. I was just planning one. Let’s talk.”

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Q. Why did you use friends and relatives like your niece and mother-in-law as models for the painting?

A. I often draw from people my wife and I know and worked with before. We don’t take snapshots of people in galleries. It’s based on memory of my experiences, rebuilding the scenes, and designing them carefully.

Q. Your wife, Lucia, takes the photos for your paintings. What’s it like working with her?

A. I’ll often get the idea for a painting, and I’ll tell Lucia. We both have the same sense of design, so we kick the idea back and forth the way a team of scientists kicks around an idea. We’ve been doing this for 37 years. There’s been an image of the artist as a lone genius working in isolation, and that’s not true. Collaboration in painting is rare, but it happens, and we’re a good example of it.

Q. Do you have more “Epiphanies” in the works?

A. There’s going to be at least 15 to paint all the different places in the museum. There could be as many as 25. Number four is finished. It’s of the Egyptian room. Number five is about to go on the easel.

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Q. You’ve painted a 7-by-10-foot mural, “The First Casualty of Bunker Hill,” and are working on one of the Lexington alarm. Why are you re-creating Revolutionary War events?

A. We discovered that there were no thoroughly researched, historically accurate renditions of those events. “Washington Crossing the Delaware” is a beautiful painting, but it never happened that way. It was in the middle of the night. The sun wasn’t shining like that, and people weren’t waving flags. They were all hiding. Historical accuracy wasn’t an issue back then for painters. They wanted drama, and didn’t want the facts to get in the way of the drama. We’re drawing the dramatic pictures that are true to the facts.

Q. How much of your day do you spend painting?

A. I’m at the easel four or five hours a day, but I spend the whole day planning and devising paintings. You’re not supposed to paint all day long. You’re supposed to think and then paint. I spend a lot of time thinking about what it is I want to say, and then I go into the studio, and I try my best to say it.

STEPHANIE STEINBERG

Interview was condensed and edited. Stephanie Steinberg can be reached at stephanie.steinberg
@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @steph_steinberg.