Tales from the Easel: Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century American Narrative Paintings, circa 1800-1950

by Dr. Charles C. Eldredge


9. Domestic Life

Genre painting has arisen (as numerous scholars have noted) in various times and places that are marked by material prosperity: seventeenth-century Holland, eighteenth-century England, mid-nineteenth-century America. Then and there, it was a burgeoning middle class that provided patronage for genre artists in unprecedented numbers and amounts. Their interest and support inevitably had a bearing on the nature of the storytelling imagery that emerged. "Since the middle-class tends to define itself in terms of private rather than public life," observed Lesley Wright, "the favored art forms also accentuate home, family, and domestic events. Within that smaller world, possessions, poses, descriptive detail, and appearances carry the meaning, rather than action, drama, public display, architecture, or expression." She noted that American artists frequently invested even their group portraits or conversation pieces with a rudimentary story line, a reflection of the growing power of genre from the second quarter of the nineteenth century onward. "The story adds the dimension of sentiment. . . [which] has the effect of orchestrating feelings, generalizing from the particular, making the painting part of a hegemonic trend."[95] The aim of such artists was, according to another scholar, "to fuse the narrator with the painter."[96]

The painter's "home, family, and domestic events" that Wright found dominant in many genre scenes recall Emerson's interest in the "meaning of household life," a crucial aspect of "the common, . . . the low" to which (as previously mentioned) he directed attention in his "American Scholar" address of 1837. By that date, American painters had already begun to explore the low and common in the national life. Their scenes were variously fraught with moralizing, sentimental, political, comical, or other significance, as Elizabeth Johns has richly detailed.[97]

Many of the antebellum genre paintings focused on the middle-class American family, an interest that persisted among post-Civil War genre painters, albeit often with different emphases. In customary sequence, the family unit has its origins in the rituals of courtship, followed by marriage and then procreation. Like an individual's, a family's life cycle then progresses through various stages: the rearing of children; their passage to adulthood; the rise of a new generation and the role of grandparents; old age, with its wisdom and its pains; and finally the rites of death. Each stage provided material for the observant painter.

In 1840, Francis William Edmonds scored an early triumph at the National Academy of Design's annual exhibition with the display of two canvases on the courtship theme, a motif that must have been especially poignant for the recently bereaved artist. Sparking, 1839 (fig. 26), and The City and the Country Beaux, circa 1839 (Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute), earned kudos from the Knickerbocker's critic, who praised them as "finished pictures; finished in 'the scope and in the detail.' The whole story is told," he wrote with admiration. "No part is omitted, or slurred over. And it is here that so many of our artists fail."[98]

That Edmonds's paintings told 'the whole story" suggests that the artist, like others of his generation, was interested in narrative themes, whether drawn from literature or from daily experience. His first oil painting on an original subject, Hudibras Catching the Fiddler, 1829 (unlocated), was inspired by a Samuel Butler poem, and literary texts motivated his imagination in later works as well. Edmonds's sources ranged from Gil Blas de Santillane by Alain-Rene Lesage (1715; U.S. editions, circa 1790-1820) to Tobias Smollett's novel Peregrine Pickle (1751) to works by his contemporaries, including Charles Dickens's Pickwick Papers and verse by Robert Burns. The last was the likely inspiration for Barking up the Wrong Tree, circa 1850-55 (cat. no. 21), a return to the "sparking" theme of his early years, but now recast with a decidedly older swain. The mismatch between the suitor and the object of his pursuit suggests an origin in Burns's poem, "To Daunton Me," in which the speaker, a girl ("me so young"), vows "An auld man shall never daunton me!" with his flattery and false heart.[99] The figures are posed in a boxlike setting, derived from seventeenth-century Dutch art and favored by Edmonds for his genre scenes, most of which were situated indoors. Details reinforce the contrast in the characters' ages. The young girl is flanked by a cupboard and door that swing open, with access to emblems of domesticity and a lightfilled room beyond; the open door can be read as a metaphor for freedom, as traditionally is the open window. By contrast, the man's side is walled in with hard right angles and a looking glass that provides no egress from the confinement. Tartan plaid on the wall behind the girl suggests Burns's Scottish source, as does the caller's Scotch terrier and his ruddy complexion and sideburns, attributes of the Scottish type. The painter's tale is relayed through such telling details, as the gentleman presses his suit to no avail; his gaze is avoided by the knitter, who instead stares out at-and coyly unfurls her ball of yarn toward -- the painter and the viewer.

Winslow Homer's Rab and the Girls of 1875 (cat. no. 33) might also deal with courtship, or the hope for same. The painting was first shown at the National Academy of Design the year after its creation, with the title Over the Hills. [100] In the academy's annual exhibition, it was overshadowed by Homer's now-famous Breezing Up (A Fair Wind), 1873-76 (National Gallery of Art). What little critical attention Over the Hills received was devoted more to formal issues than to the picture's subject: "The girls are admirably drawn and painted though the artist has. . . unduly lowered the tone of the coloring," offered the New York Times, an example characteristic of the critical ambivalence the painting inspired. Despite the "hasty and imperfect painting" in the fore- and background, the reviewer (probably Charles De Kay) concluded that the two central figures '"reveal such power of handling as no one dreamed Winslow Homer possessed."[101] Nowhere in the discussion did the critic ask what those two '"admirably drawn" women were doing in a clover field, and neither did any other reviewer. But in details both subtle and bold, Homer seems to offer clues to his pictorial story.

The artist's early practice as an illustrator had given Homer a keen sense of the telling moment -- in literature, in life -- as captured in visual terms. From his debut in the late 1850s through the paintings of the 1870s, in scenes of middle-class or military life, he had demonstrated his ability to extract stories of interest from the routines of life about him. On occasion, he could add to those pictorial tales secondary or symbolic levels of meaning, sometimes disguising them beneath the ordinariness of the subject depicted. Nicolai Cikovsky cites Homer's Veteran in a New Field, 1865 (Metropolitan Museum of Art), as a prime example-perhaps the prime example-of this tendency toward "a consciously and deliberately symbolic painting," in that case a post-Civil War rumination on death. '"Homer possessed both the intention and the intelligence to create symbolic meaning," he noted, although rarely with such a momentous subject as that in the Veteran. "But Homer's ability to invent symbols and manipulate symbolic references becomes a potential of his pictorial practice that any interpretation of his later art must take into account."[102]

Earl Shinn perhaps inferred something of the symbolic meaning, the narrative of Rab and the Girls, which admittedly is by no means as significant as the Veteran. When first shown in 1876, he wrote of the "peculiar moral freshness which characterizes Mr. Homer's girls, and which in some of them becomes a kind of handsome hardness"; but then, instead of exploring their peculiarity, he lapsed into a description of the pair holding a "four-leaved shamrock. . . balanced by the bouquet of red maple leaves," avoiding further exploration of the "perfect maidenhood" the figures embody.[103] Three years later he reacted to the "native and racy" painting in language more suggestive, even feverish, although still circumspect. The '"fresh girls" have wandered the "wild, lone hills"; "themselves far enough from life's autumn," they carry home a "scarlet branch of that most American tree, the maple," tinted with "the first blood drawn by aggressive winter." With "breezy frankness" Homer renders these avatars of "hopeful maidenhood" in a "picture [that] seems to include the most delicate and pensive aroma of Coleridge's 'November,' while at the same time it speaks the American accent."[104]

The four-leaf clover that occupies a central position in Homer's composition also plays a central role in the symbolism through which the painting's "racy" tale might be related. The botanical oddity has been accepted as a symbol of good luck since ancient times. In 1873 the tiny, lucky quatrefoil had provided Homer with the subject and title for an oil painting (Detroit Institute of Art) in which it was held by a young girl and silhouetted against a suns truck wall. Luck could play a role in affairs of the heart as well as other human affairs, and amorous themes played an unusually prominent role in Homer's work of the 1870s. In Shall I Tell Your Fortune?, 1876 (private collection), one of the artist's most exceptional works, love and luck are combined, as a comely fortune-teller displays a hand of cards foretelling the viewer's (and the artist's?) romantic future. Such a romantic theme might be interpreted in Rab and the Girls as well. The fresh greenness of the clover contrasts with the autumnal hues of foliage, seasonal associations that beg the question, Are the girls "over the hill," as the original title might imply? Or are they still eligible, still desirable examples of "perfect maidenhood" who, with luck (and clover), might avoid old-maidenhood? Homer, of course, was generally too masterful to resort to such obvious storytelling. Yet in subtle ways, he invests his scene with narrative details that elevate Rab and the Girls beyond the "barren canvas" that Clarence Cook faulted as the sort of painting "Mr. Homer [produces] when he has nothing to say and persists in taking a big canvas to say it in."[105] Consideration of its subject, not solely its formal elements, might yield a pictorial narrative of unusual interest.

When gentlemen callers were not "barking up the wrong tree," when maidens weren't alone strolling in clover, courtship might lead to marriage. Wedding rituals, particularly the appearance and actions of the bride, provided the motif for numerous nineteenth-century canvases. In addition to the portraits that were the basis for his reputation and income, Kentucky artist William Edward West painted several works on the bridal theme. The Unwilling Bride and Adornment of the Bride are both mentioned in his papers; in The Present, 1833 (fig. 27), a bride examines a wedding gift of a gold-and-amethyst necklace, while around her gathers a sorority (and one young boy) whose mixed expressions suggest varying reactions to the present, or to the impending union.

Marriage was often followed by the arrival of children, who have provided subjects for many artists in many lands for many years. In numerous examples, they are represented with their parents, suggesting the premium placed on family life and the domestic arena, as well as on family lineage and perpetuation. These were concerns that especially motivated American painters in the nineteenth century. The child -- or, better, children -- often took center stage in their family portraits, figuratively and sometimes, as in the case of Ralph E. W. Earl's Foster family portrait (fig. 28), literally. In James Clonney's painting Offering Baby a Rose, 1857 (cat. no. 18), the intent is not a specific likeness, but a general evocation of the joys of babyhood and domestic life. Like Edmonds, Clonney betrays his interest in Dutch traditions; the young mother, elegantly garbed but unusually elongated, might have wandered in from a Terborch canvas, while the new father sits within a boxy stage set before a map of the sort that Vermeer often included in his interiors. Details help to convey the narrative of family life, again as with Edmonds; the map, writing implements, and books in the father's vicinity connote the worldly arena of the male, while on the mother's side a birdcage (barely discernible beside the door), whose bars are rhymed in the balustrade beyond, define the more limited domestic sphere of the female. The pink rose -- in the period's "language of flowers," symbolic of feminine beauty and innocence -- is offered to the baby girl, as if in exchange for the ring with red ribbon that she has dropped at mother's feet. A wicker stroller is parked nearly offstage at the father's side, perhaps a reference to the mobility that might take a baby girl born at midcentury into a wider world in her adulthood. Through the careful delineation and compilation of such details, Clonney's pictorial narrative celebrating domesticity and what David Lubin calls "the sentimental family" is made legible.[106]

A rather different family dynamic is conveyed in Lilly Martin Spencer's The Young Husband: First Marketing, 1854 (cat. no. 55). Spencer was a rarity in nineteenth-century America, a female artist who supported herself, her husband, and their large brood with sales of her artwork, which enjoyed great vogue, particularly in the 1840s and '50s. Most of her domestic genre pictures feature female protagonists -- woman in the nursery, woman in the kitchen. But in several scenes from the mid-1850s to the mid-1860s, men figure prominently -- husbands and fathers depicted, Lubin claims, in Spencer's "passive-aggressive" manner.[107] First among these were the young husband marketing, Spencer's sly subversion of the period's patriarchal paradigm. The man, ineptly carrying out a domestic task, vainly tries to maintain his balance and his composure.[108 ] To the amusement of passers-by, his produce and eggs crash to the slick pavement, as he manfully grabs the slick bird (a young cock?) about to slip from his basket. Spencer's husband, Benjamin, the perennially unemployed father of their thirteen children, was the probable inspiration for this comic pratfall. That the subject enjoyed popularity during the artist's heyday is suggested by the several versions of the composition that Spencer painted.[109]

Spencer's young husband's burden apparently was not shared by the Native American, at least not in Alfred Boisseau's Louisiana Indians Walking along a Bayou, 1847 (cat. no. 9). There, the proud sire is empty-handed but for his gun as he leads a pair of burden-bearing women and his young son along a southern stream near Lake Ponchartrain. Like the father, the boy carries only a weapon, in his case a slender spear, leaving the heavy lifting to the women of the party. Boisseau was a French-born and -trained painter who worked in New Orleans for several years, beginning in 1845, before moving to New York. Like many of his compatriots at that time, he was attracted by the exotic, in this case the Choctaw, identified by the style of their basketry and hair. An earlier visitor to the region, describing a similar procession, suggests the accuracy of Boisseau's documentation of native family life: "The squaws went by, walking one behind the other. . . . These squaws carried large Indian baskets on their backs, and shuffled along, barefooted, while their lords paced before them. . . with blue and red clothing and embroidered leggings, with tufts of hair at the knees, while pouches and white fringes dangled about them. They looked like grave merry-andrews; or, more still, like solemn fanatical harvest men going out for largess."[110] Boisseau sent his Louisiana Indians to the annual Paris Salon of 1848, where it provided a New World complement to the colorful "Oriental" motifs often depicted by French artists of the period.

The Choctaws that Boisseau painted in 1847 were among the remnant of a tribe that had once inhabited a large area in Louisiana. Events of midcentury discombobulated American family life, and not for European Americans alone. In 1830, the Choctaw, one of the four great Indian nations of the old Southeast, had signed a treaty calling for their removal from ancestral lands within three years. The migration brought hardship, disease, and death to the relocated people, as it did to their southern neighbors, the Creek and the Chickasaw, who were also relocated or placed on reservations during the Jackson administration. The Cherokee, the fourth southern nation, had to be forcibly relocated in 1838, when they joined thousands of other Native Americans who had traveled the "trail of tears" to the Indian Territory in the trans- Mississippi West, which in 1908 became the forty-sixth state, Oklahoma.

Enslaved blacks in the Confederate states, who were proclaimed emancipated by President Lincoln in 1863, were practically freed by eventual Union victory in the Civil War. But for African Americans, the peace of Appomattox in 1865 only began another period of trial. Thomas Hovenden's Contentment, 1881 (cat. no. 34), is characteristic of the artist's "highly narrative" subjects from common experience that won him the approbation of his generation.[111] At the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Hovenden's Breaking Home Ties, 1890 (fig. 29), was the single most popular picture at the fair; the young man's soulful expression upon taking leave from mother, home, and hound tugged at the heartstrings of late Victorian audiences. (It also provided the precedent and probable inspiration for Gilbert Gaul's Leaving Home [cat. no. 23], where the young man is in his father's grasp rather than his mother's.) The sentimentality of Breaking Home Ties is evident as well in a group of African American domestic scenes that Hovenden had painted in the preceding decade, including Contentment. Although emancipation had ended the agony of arbitrary severance of slaves' family ties, poverty, lack of education, and overt discrimination continued to plague African Americans. Such concerns, however, are largely absent from Hovenden's sentimentally viewed subjects, who in title and deportment exude "contentment." In a quiet, end-of-day moment, the husband pushes back from the table in his comfortable rocking chair to enjoy his pipe and listen to his wife as she speaks to him while clearing the dinner from the table. While the setting is simple, it is not without its amenities -- note the white tablecloth, the blue-and-white china -- and could be replicated in countless white households of the period. Hovenden's mise-en-scène suggests a pronounced sympathy with his subjects, a sympathy some historians have attributed to family connections, specifically to his in-laws' ardent abolitionist sentiments.[112]

Like Hovenden's, many of Edward L. Henry's paintings, both historical subjects and genre scenes, were stamped with a narrative. Their storytelling character earned the artist critical praise as "the Washington Irving of a painted 'Sketch-Book.' "[113] Such a work might be Henry's The Sitting Room, 1883 (cat. no. 31). In an interior more lavishly appointed than Hovenden's, two figures flank an ornate mantelpiece (and also the sleeping family pet, who appeared in many Henry paintings); an older woman reads and her younger companion works her needle, both lost in silent concentration. On the upholstered sofa an elderly man naps away the October afternoon. In dark garb, something like a military uniform, and tucked beneath a multihued cover that enshrouds him like battle colors, the sleeper resembles a Civil War officer; from his insensate hand, a paper with the news of worldly affairs has slipped to the floor, leaving the old man to his reveries, perhaps of past chivalry and battle glory. The room's old-fashioned decor suggests a time past, a backward glance: ancestral portrait, Adamesque fireplace, and antique furniture of the sort inspired by the collecting vogue begun at the Centennial Exposition a few years earlier, an enthusiasm in which Henry eagerly participated. The "certain slant of light" (as Emily Dickinson might call it)[114] and the autumnal foliage outside further imply a time and season of nostalgia and reflection, of winding down, even (in Dickinson's verse) of death. Henry's patrons were eager for such paintings "that tell their own story, so soon as the artist gets them on canvas."[115] He obliged buyers and the art critics alike with images, like The Sitting Room, that convey "the very feeling of security and happy contentment which belongs to a well regulated household."[116]

Henry's vision may have been retrospective, but the values that inform his genre scenes, stressing historical continuity and domestic harmony, were topical in his day and well beyond. The ancestral ties suggested in the portrait over the sitting-room mantelpiece found new expression in the modern era. During the depression years, institutional historicism flourished in organizations such as the Mayflower Society or the Daughters of the American Revolution, when genealogy seemed to offer comforting assurance of continuity beyond the difficult circumstances of the moment. In 1932, Grant Wood savaged the potential narrow-mindedness of such an attitude in his Daughters of Revolution (Cincinnati Art Museum); a few years later, Eleanor Roosevelt castigated the D.A.R. for its refusal to allow the distinguished African American contralto Marian Anderson to perform at its Washington headquarters, and famously offered the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in place of that venue.

Bloodlines and family histories might have their positive aspects, which Philip Evergood underscored with his memorable composition My Forebears Were Pioneers, 1939 (cat. no. 22). The scene of fortitude amid devastation was inspired by a sight the artist witnessed during a trip through New England following the awful hurricane of September 1938. "I was impressed," he explained, "by the way that old lady of pioneer stock was unperturbed by anything. Her grandfathers had fought Indians and come over on the Mayflower, and there she was with her Bible, not changed by all that turmoil of nature." While he acknowledged the timeliness of the storm subject for his contemporaries, "I don't like to feel that it will always be topical. I don't paint to put over topical issues. I feel very conscious when I develop a theme that it must have universal connotations before I put it down in paint."[117] Viewers responded to the painting, one of Evergood's most important, and appreciated what one reviewer called his "revival of the literary associative approach, though now with Surrealist overtones."[118] Evergood's friend and dealer explained the picture's narrative through a comparison, writing that My Forebears Were Pioneers "contains as much poignancy and social philosophy as is to be found in Chekov's 'The Cherry Orchard.'"[119]

The family as the focus of portraitists, WPA muralists, or genre artists persists into our own time (for example, painter-printmaker Eric Fischl or photographer Tina Barney). And the family ideal has been periodically invoked by social reformers, politicians, advertisers, and others who use the image of harmony to promote their cause. In the years following World War II, the United States embarked on a new era of domesticity. The repatriation of GIs from foreign theaters of war -- and the return of Rosie the Riveter from factory to home -- created great changes in American family life: birth rates skyrocketed in an unprecedented baby boom, which in turn led to a greatly expanding suburbia, made possible by home loans to veterans and requiring a host of new services and facilities.

The advertising profession grew with this domestic revolution, using traditional media as well as new technologies (especially television) to reach a newly affluent middle class. Enterprising postwar pitchmen made use of striking designs by visual artists, building on the success of earlier advertising campaigns. Particularly influential were the Container Corporation of America's efforts, begun in the 1930s, which culminated in the famous Great Ideas series of print ads introduced by the company's founder, Walter Paepcke, in 1950. The coal industry, which fueled much of the expanding economy, made similar use of the fine arts. In 1945, to promote its important role in the national life, the Bituminous Coal Institute commissioned Rockwell Kent to produce a projected series of twelve paintings to be used in a national advertising campaign. The Baker of the Bread of Abundance (cat. no. 37) is part of that little-known series, each panel of which is dominated by a gigantic Genie who holds a glowing lump of the sponsor's product. (To Kent's complaints about the format, the ad agency representative confided to the artist that the sponsor's conception of "a man two thousand feet high holding a lump of hot coal in his hand is pretty silly to start with.") [120] Among the myriad images of coal's blessings for Americans -- in transit, manufacturing, health care, and so on -- none was closer to home, literally and figuratively, than the image of family gathered in prayer at the table of postwar prosperity. As Eric Schruers has explained, "'arranged in perfect boy-girl order around the table, the figures represent health in youth, maturity and old age as afforded by an abundant food supply."[121] In order to promote the product effectively, Kent (or any artist working in advertising) perforce had to work in a manner that made the corporate patron's pitch, or narrative, comprehensible; indeed, as others have noted, advertising "provides so many analogues for the depth impact of narrative art."[122] In the Coal series, Kent did this by using familiar tropes, such as the image of the American family. It was a favorite theme of narrative painters from early in the nation's history, and a timeless one that appealed as well to Kent's modern audience.


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Editor's note: This essay was rekeyed and reprinted on July 9, 2004 in Resource Library Magazine with permission of Charles C. Eldredge and the University of Georgia Press, Athens, GA. The essay was previously included in pages 7 through 70 in an illustrated exhibition catalogue for the exhibition Tales from the Easel: Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century American Narrative Paintings from Southeastern Museums, circa 1800-1950. The exhibit was held at the Columbus Museum from February 8 and through April 11, ,2004 with additional venues including the Tampa Art Museum (April 25-July 11, 2004), The Speed Art Museum (September 14-December 12, 2004) and the El Paso Art Museum (January 16-April 10, 2005). The exhibition catalogue was published in 2004, ISBN 0-8203-2569-4. Images accompanying the text in the exhibition catalogue were not reproduced with this reprinting. We wish to extend our appreciation to Mr. Tom Butler, director, The Columbus Museum for his courtesy in connection with this reprinting. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you have interest in obtaining a copy of the exhibition catalogue, please contact The Columbus Museum through either this phone number or web address:

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