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At Home in America: 19th Century Genre Painting

July 22 - September 7, 2008


Following the popularity of Hudson River School painting in the first quarter of the 19th century, and prior to the advent of photography and the upheaval of Civil War, American artists began to explore domestic images, scenes of daily life that celebrate the democratic spirit of the American homeland and the American people. This exhibition features outstanding examples of such genre pictures by leading American painters of this art.


Wall text from the exhibition


Genre Painting refers to scenes depicting everyday life, such as markets, domestic interiors, farm or industrial labor, street scenes, and similar views. In western art history, genre painting first rose to prominence in the seventeenth century, particularly in the Netherlands, when a newly prosperous Protestant mercantile class acquired sufficient wealth to patronize artists. These middle class merchants desired pictures of Dutch life and society familiar to themselves as distinct from religious images or society portraits previously required by the clergy or nobility.

In 18th and early 19th century America, portraiture or the romantic and moralistic landscapes of the Hudson River School predominated. But by mid 19th century, Americans-particularly artists-began to chafe under the limitations imposed by such pictures. A growing awareness of the uniqueness of American democracy, where government resided in the people rather than in tradition-bound European monarchies, coupled with the effects exerted by frontier life upon the American character, led to an appreciation for depicting the experience of common folk. The trauma and upheaval of the Civil War (1861-1865) only deepened this trend. In the aftermath of such conflict, lofty and noble paintings representing the American landscape as a "New Eden" seemed hollow at best. The great loss of life and property engendered by the war caused Americans to turn inward to focus upon the simple pleasures of family or home. And artists responded accordingly.

The resulting pictures created in this new environment may be broadly categorized as American genre painting. Yet despite the diversity of potential subject matter, American genre pictures conveniently can be grouped around several major themes that continuously re-emerge and assert themselves throughout the 19th century.

This select exhibition has been organized around five of these popular themes: Memories of the Civil War, Family and Home, Children and Childhood, Leisure Activity, and Farm and Labor. Within these categories, the overriding tendency has been to portray American life with an affectionate nostalgia, and, one might say, "homey" quality, whether urban or rural. Often there is humor, occasionally a melancholy sadness, particularly if portraying loss of a loved one. The Victorian woman is presented with complex ambiguity, both an adored creature yet one often marginalized, while children inhabit a special world of innocence or mischievousness.


The Civil War earns the infamous distinction of being the bloodiest conflict in United States history, the loss of life and destruction of property being greater than that for all other American wars combined. During the post-bellum era (1866-1877), known to historians as Reconstruction, Americans attempted to restore a semblance of normality to lives, routines, and familiar patterns shattered by the conflict. While some Americans attempted to start life afresh by heading west and settling the frontier, others reminisced fondly of wartime camaraderie with brothers in arms. For others, still, the post war period only heightened the feeling that their lives had been altered forever despite their seeming re-integration into the familiar rhythms and ways of civilian life.

Three pictures illustrate these developments: Alvan Fisher's Roadside Meeting and Flight to the Fort and Thomas Waterman Wood's The Veteran.

One of the first American artists to chafe at the limitations of portraiture and landscape, Fisher became a pioneer of genre painting. An active participant in the artistic life of Boston, he befriended Washington Allston and noted Hudson River School artist Asher B. Durand. Fisher exhibited in all the important venues of his day, including the National Academy and the Pennsylvania Academy.

Roadside Meeting is an early work and marks a transition from landscape to genre, one where the focus is still the scenery yet where groups of humble figures provide a narrative or story-telling element, the essential component of genre painting. Flight to the Fort, though undated, takes this development a step further. While the landscape is important, the figures are larger in scale and occupy the center foreground. The title of the picture provides a context for interpreting their actions. The notion of escape and flight would have resonated with many viewers in the immediate Civil War and post-war eras and would have been particularly poignant in the context of the underground railroad or the experience of Americans fleeing the carnage of war.

Thomas Waterman Wood's The Veteran represents the aftermath of conflict, the soldier returned to civilian life. This study accurately captures the farmer's careworn face, patched clothing, and rustic wheelbarrow, hinting at the hardships of farming while the coat hung from a peg is identified as a southern cavalry officer's uniform, a telling detail perhaps indicating the intended setting to be the ravaged landscape of the deep south.


American Families experienced profound social changes in the 19th century. Increasing urbanization, industrialization, war, and changing attitudes with respect to women's roles-all these altered the traditional family. During the first half of the nineteenth century, most Americans lived in villages or rural farms. Families were often self-reliant, growing their own food, making their own clothing. Socializing occurred with one's immediate neighbors. In this tight-knit society, gender roles were rigidly prescribed. Women were expected to marry, bear children, and serve as the moral and religious force within the family unit. Genteel ladies were to excel at homemaking, the useful arts such as needlepoint, and household management. Though not a human subject, A Rooster, Hen, and Chicks by William Baird uses the metaphor of avian society to comment on the Victorian family ideal.

The reality of daily living differed from this romanticized ideal, especially after 1865 when many young women abandoned farm life for more lucrative jobs in factories and the opportunities and advantages promised by city living. Yet it remained a dominant paradigm in American culture. Rooted in its appeal to popular taste, genre painting repeated and reinforced these cultural myths, as if nothing had changed between the 1840s and 1870s. Images of women as patient, contented, morally uplifting, and self-sacrificing, are all familiar subjects in genre painting.

The art of Samuel Lancaster Gerry, whose Self-Portrait is also on view, typifies this idealized vision of rural life. In Family Near a Stream, a New Hampshire couple placidly fords a shallow brook while their dog scampers about and another horse tamely draws near. The young Madonna-like mother cradles a baby in her arms, the whole scene blessed by a majestic canopy of trees, hazy mountains, and the steeple of a distant church.

Jervis McEntee's Sitting by the Fire (1865) offers an urban counterpart replete with sumptuous furnishings consisting of an Oriental carpet, gilt frames, mirror, brass andirons, mahogany paneling, Gothic Revival chairs and silky window treatments. The woman dressed in black, perhaps in mourning, muses over a nostalgic Hudson River landscape. Equally nostalgic, Thomas Waterman Wood's Threading a Needle captures in intricate detail an aged woman performing a mundane task with patience and love. Edward Lamson Henry's Waiting for the Stagecoach appears to be set in the 1830s yet was actually painted in 1905. It, too, possesses an air of idealized nostalgia for an era and way of life long past.


Childhood, as we understand the concept today, did not exist in the 19th century. Children were not viewed as individually self-actualized beings. Rather they tended to be perceived either as innocent and pure, almost angelic, creatures unspoiled by the corruptions of worldly life; or they were regarded as mischievous with a propensity to stray unless guided with a firm and stern discipline. A well-known adage of the era, "spare the rod and spoil the child," summed up this view for many Victorians and illuminates the humor underlying John Williamson's Nervous Truant and George Henry Story's Miss Tiffany.

In Nervous Truant, we are placed in the position of privileged viewers glimpsing what is hidden from view of the schoolhouse-a young boy tempted by the beauty of the day and his own impetuousness. Too late, he seems to regret ignoring the call of the school bell. His expression of remorse would have found a sympathetic response with Victorian audiences. Similarly, Miss Tiffany shows a young girl decked out in white summer finery. The torn and discarded book trampled by the rocker belies her seeming innocence. Her expression subtly hints at her apprehension in having acted so rashly.

By way of contrast, Abbott Fuller Graves and Walter Farndon present images of childhood where well-mannered, attentive, and docile children attend to the lessons grownups impart. A prominent Boston artist, Abbott Fuller Graves is today known for his decorative work, as well as still life, landscape, and genre paintings. He exhibited widely at the National Academy, The Boston Art Club, the Pennsylvania Academy, and the Paris Salon and won prizes for his work at the Salmagundi Club and the 1905 Paris Expo des Beaux Arts. Fisherman's Lesson presents a working-class subject with dignity and decorum. An air of tender gentility informs the picture; an aesthetic doubtless intended to appeal to Grave's society patrons.

Though traveling widely from New Jersey to Nova Scotia, Farndon's New York City environment provided much inspiration for his late 19th and early 20th century work. Women reading to children are a favorite motif in genre painting, but here it is given a new twist. The setting is not a cozy Victorian parlor but the El train. There, amid the din and clatter of an urban commute, a mother creates a moment of solitude with her two girls as they nestle close together to share a favorite story.


Leisure time and the ability to enjoy it were rare luxuries in the nineteenth century. For those who lived in urban areas, a ten-hour, six-day workweek plus an endless round of housekeeping tasks-cleaning, cooking, the daily procurement of food, chopping wood, sewing clothing-filled their time. Sunday became the focus of leisure activity. And that sole day was often devoted to Sabbath keeping. Those who lived in rural areas or on farms found leisure in infrequent spare moments when not attending to requisite chores or long hours in the fields growing crops, tending livestock, or harvesting.

By mid-century, however, industrialization began to alter accustomed patterns of daily living as machines made leisure time available to a wider segment of people. What we would now term a "sports craze" became the fashion for urban dwellers, especially those of the middle and upper classes. Activities such as croquet, badminton, tennis, and ice-skating became popular. Many artists, including such luminaries as Winslow Homer, turned their attention to these new phenomena.

Charles Themmen and John Culverhouse were among those who depicted the new craze for ice-skating. Both Themmen's Winter Pastime and Culverhouse's Skating at Twilight seamlessly blend the native school of Hudson River landscape with traditions borrowed from 18th century Dutch painting. These are particularly evident in the low horizon, generally flat landscape, and dramatic, cloud-flecked sky captured at sunset. While Culverhouse represents a small village or town setting complete with blacksmith shop, distant windmill-like structures, and even a sled for hauling passengers or toting ice over the frozen river, Themmen offers a more rural viewpoint, complete with farmers gathering logs and branches for winter fuel.

Summer recreation also merited artistic notice. George Story's Seashells offers a quintessential look at a relatively new phenomena-seaside recreation, something that also attracted Winslow Homer's keen eye. In Story's picture, a proper Victorian girl in crisp white summer attire gathers shells. While today viewers might find her dress overly formal, impossibly difficult to keep clean, and stiflingly hot, 19th century viewers reacted quite differently. The cut and color of the gown imply a refined taste and the cultivated leisure of the wearer. As social mores changed, women pursued careers formerly restricted to men. Alexander Pope's Women's Studio offers an amusing look at a female drawing class.


Farm Life was a familiar environment for the vast majority of Americans in the 19th century. Indeed, it was not until the 1920 census that more Americans listed their residence as urban as opposed to rural. The vast fertility and agricultural abundance of America made farming a logical and profitable occupation and agriculture a metaphor for self-reliance, independence, and democratic equality. The American landscape itself came to be viewed by the earlier Hudson River school painters as a New Eden, a virginal landscape favored by God.

It is no coincidence, then, that farm life and labor in general were pictured as illustrating these ideals. While William Davis's matter-of-fact Cider Making on Long Island owes a debt to William Sidney Mount's pictures of the same subject (the two artists were friends and painted together) the tedious work of mashing apples by horse cart is made picturesque in Davis's rendering. Similarly, Edward Moran's Winter at the Farm emphasizes the glorious display of late autumn foliage and an abundant harvest set off against the first snows of winter. The drudgery of farm life is all but forgotten in this exquisite canvas.

Representing a more genteel, yet equally bucolic view, Albert Fitch Bellows' Safely Landed presents a gorgeously attired young woman [is she a city girl visiting the country?] coming to the aid of a flock of hatchlings. Her act of kindness in assisting them ashore serves to underscore her own beauty, gentility, and protective maternal instincts, qualities Victorians deemed inherent as well as essential in young ladies.

Genre painters also delighted in being humorous and sharing their wit with the art-viewing public. Louis Moeller's Stop Fooling depicts a typical rural or small-town couple taking a break from their shared routine. Though engaged in shelling beans together, the husband, influenced perhaps by the crock of cider set next to him on the porch steps, has taken advantage of the situation to crack a joke causing the woman to admonish him. As privileged viewers, we share in this light-hearted moment. We can smile as well at the quaintness of the scene and wonder aloud at the nature of this exchange that has provoked such an immediate reaction from the woman. Such direct involvement with the picture was often the intent of genre painters.

A more urban setting is seen in Alfred Kipps's watercolor, Clothing District, Boston, a quintessential example of the fast-changing face of urban America where only as generation earlier clothing was home made rather than store-bought or factory produced.


Label copy from the exhibition


Cider Making on Long Island, c. 1865

William Davis (1829-1920)

Oil on canvas, 15 inches by 24 inches

Courtesy, Vose Galleries, Boston

William Davis spent much of his career painting in and around the locale of Port Jefferson, Long Island where he became close friends with the renowned genre painter William Sidney Mount who lived in nearby Stony Brook. Mount became an important influence in Davis's own work as can be seen by comparing Davis's painting with the similar subject rendered by Mount (pictured above). Davis opened a studio in New York City in 1868, but returned to Long Island in 1872 where he was affectionately known to his neighbors as "painter Davis." For the rest of his career he continued to paint scenes of local villagers pursuing their daily tasks as well as the quiet bays and inlets of Long Island sound. Both Davis and Mount demonstrate an interest in recording particular details as the cider shed, the horse-pulled masher, the kegs of cider, and the local landscape. In the 19th century farmers depended on such local distilleries to turn otherwise perishable crops (in this case apples) into such commodities as cider that had a longer shelf life and could fetch hard currency. Mount included an interesting human note in the farm family resting in the foreground. Though quaint, this detail harkens back to European painterly precedent as in depictions of the Holy Family resting on the flight to Egypt. Mount thus imbues a quintessential American scene with the aura of a storied European painterly tradition.


Self-Portrait of the Artist on Horseback

Samuel Lancaster Gerry (1813-1891)

Oil on canvas, 20 inches by 14 inches

Collection of Francesca Carriuolo

A formidable force in the Boston art scene in the mid 19th century, Samuel Lancaster Gerry became a founding member of the Boston Art Club in 1854 and later served as president and trustee of that organization. He also taught the famous Joseph Frank Currier. Gerry became a leader of what is now known as the White Mountain School of painting yet demonstrated equal proficiency in animal and genre subjects. All three of those interests are evident here. The winter landscape testifies to the artist's facility in painting nature, particularly the winter scenery of New Hampshire, a favorite locale. The lively gait and demeanor of Gerry's horse and dog evidence his ability in rendering animal subjects. Though a self-portrait, the composition has broader appeal than typical for portraiture. The rider maneuvering his mount through winter woodlands with his hunting dog striding along side invites the viewer to decipher a story concerning their circumstances, destination, and objective and thus serves as a good example of a genre picture.


Family Near a Stream

Samuel Lancaster Gerry (1813-1891)

Oil on board, 12.75 inches by 10.50 inches

Courtesy, Vose Galleries, Boston

This painting represents a wonderful example of Gerry's best work: a bucolic depiction of a White Mountain landscape for which the artist was well known, combined with a quintessential genre image of the contented, happy family. The setting of a deep forest glade with pendulous trees and gentle stream harkens back to the Hudson River School tradition of landscape painting. Here the forest parts to reveal the rolling white mountains in the distance framed by the spire of a white clapboard church. Such a detail presents another common device employed by Hudson River artists, the presence of a steeple indicating a land hallowed by the hand of God. To this metaphor Gerry adds that of the Holy Family of biblical and renaissance painterly tradition. But here, in America, that iconic symbol has been transformed to represent a typical rural couple, husband wife, and newborn babe. Their momentary pause, the peaceful waters, and cool, leafy surroundings all combine to create a mood of utter tranquility and harmony. Such a picture also conveys something of the Transcendentalist belief that surrounded by nature one could glimpse the sacred.


Waiting for the Stagecoach (Mrs. Fanny Wells), 1905

Edward Lamson Henry (1841-1919)

Oil on board, 10 inches by 8 inches

Courtesy, Questroyal Fine Art, LLC, New York

Celebrated for rustic genre subjects, Edward Lamson Henry was the most significant painter of colonial life and customs in the nineteenth century. Although born in Charleston, South Carolina, he moved to New York City in 1848 after being orphaned. Highly precocious, Henry studied at the Pennsylvania Academy before traveling to Paris in 1860 where he studied with Gustave Courbet and Charles Gleyre. In 1863 Henry opened a studio in the famous Tenth Street Building and four years later was elected an associate member of the National Academy of Design.

Waiting for the Stagecoach depicts an elegantly clad young woman waiting for her horse-drawn transport to arrive. The painting is obviously nostalgic for by 1905 when this work was painted automobiles were beginning to replace antiquated stagecoaches and horse-drawn vehicles. The woman's dress and bonnet, too, recall the era of the 1840s as does the architecture of the side-lit doorway and center-hall colonial dwelling framed by climbing roses visible behind her. Such a retrospective view, popular in the late 19th and early 20th century (an era marked by the colonial revival style and the beginning of the antiques boom), paradoxically marked the end of the popularity of genre painting as artists began to turn their attention to modern subjects and modes of painting.


The Veteran, c. 1870s

Thomas Waterman Wood (1823-1903)

Oil on canvas, 12 inches by 10.25 inches

Courtesy, Spanierman Gallery, LLC, New York

Like his famous colleagues William Sidney Mount and George Caleb Bingham, Wood was one of the first genre painters to depict African-Americans with dignity. Though born in Vermont, he spent many years in Nashville, Tennessee and Louisville, Kentucky painting Black union soldiers. Three of these, The Contraband, showing a runaway slave eager to enlist; The Recruit, depicting the same soldier proud in his new uniform; and The Veteran, depicting a grizzled, one-legged and war-weary survivor, earned Wood election into the National Academy of Design in 1867. Following the success of these pictures, Wood determined to devote his attention to genre.

This painting bears the same title as one of Wood's 1867 pictures. Although the subject is identified as a Confederate cavalry officer by the coat hanging on a peg, the harsh reality of post-war life is every bit as evident. Like Winslow Homer's The Veteran in a New Field, c. 1865 (pictured above at left) both hint at the carnage of war. In Homer's picture the farmer's scythe looks like the grim reaper's tool while in Wood's oil sketch the Veteran's left hand has been omitted from an otherwise meticulous character study.


Flight to the Fort

Alvan Fisher (1792-1863)

Oil on canvas, 14 inches by 20 inches

Courtesy, Vose Galleries, Boston

Though the dramatic landscape is still the focus of this picture, here Fisher demonstrates his turn to genre painting in the increased importance of the central figures to the overall composition, their dramatic action in fleeing to safety, and the narrative quality of the painting's title, each provoking a sense of wonder and engagement with the viewer. The brilliant scarlet of the man's vest immediately draws our eye to him and serves as a focal point to underscore his action. Holding the reins of the woman's horse as she rides sidesaddle and cradles a baby in her arms, his gesture unites the two figures and conveys the sense they are a family unit. The looming mountain, russet foreground landscape, and thickly leafed trees add to the drama.


Roadside Meeting

Alvan Fisher (1792-1863)

Oil on canvas, 17 inches by 21 inches

Collection, Cahoon Museum of American Art

Considered a pioneer in American genre, landscape, and animal painting, Fisher was born in Dedham, Massachusetts in 1792. He studied briefly with John Ritto Penniman, an ornamental painter.

Fisher was one of the first American artists to rebel against portrait painting, and he soon became a pioneer of genre, landscape, and animal pictures, a favorite being the depiction of racehorses. Though his early landscapes are somewhat harsh, a tour of Europe in 1825 improved his style and upon returning to Boston he set up a studio with great success. Fisher's records reveal sales of nearly a thousand paintings between 1826 and his death in 1863.

Fisher traveled throughout the United States recording observations in a notebook for later incorporation into paintings. Roadside Meeting contains the "water, rising ground and woodbanks" prescribed by the 18th-century landscape theorist William Gilpin as ingredients for the "picturesque." Like the vast majority of his works, Roadside Meeting has a pleasant quality enhanced by his superb use of color. But we can also appreciate how the landscape becomes subordinate to the more interesting action of the chance meeting of figures by a roadside and their subsequent interaction. Their intimacy draws us into the picture as we ponder the nature of their exchange.


Sitting by the Fire, 1865

Jervis McEntee (1828-1891)

Oil on canvas, 15 inches by 20 inches

Courtesy, Questroyal Fine Art, LLC, New York

Primarily known as a landscape painter, McEntee studied under the celebrated Frederick Edwin Church in New York City between 1850-51 prior to opening his own studio in 1858. He counted the Hudson River artists Sanford Gifford and Worthington Whittredge as friends. In 1860 he was elected an Associate of the National Academy of Design but at the outbreak of the war McEntee enlisted in the Union army. He subsequently exhibited at the Royal Academy in London and the Paris exposition of 1867 and regularly exhibited at the Boston Art Club between 1873 and 1891.

It was said of him that "nostalgia may well have been his middle name." Created in the final year of the war, Sitting by the Fire provides a rare glimpse into what is most likely the interior spaces of the Tenth Street Studio Building McEntee called home between 1859 and 1891. The sumptuous furnishings create an atmosphere of warmth but the seated woman seems to ruminate over nostalgic pictures of the Hudson River school adoring the walls. The furnishings carry a double meaning. In the nineteenth century a person living in the socioeconomic sphere indicated by this interior likely employed domestic help drawn from the ever-expanding ranks of indentured immigrants. Parallels between domestic employment and the slavery of the Confederacy likely weighed upon reflective citizens like McEntee. The interior sharply contrasts with the war-torn landscape of America. The shroud covering the fireplace mantle paired with the woman's black dress suggests mourning for the American home, perhaps symbolically represented by the dying fire in the hearth.


Threading a Needle

Thomas Waterman Wood (1823-1903)

Oil on canvas, 10 inches by 12 inches

Courtesy, Godel and Company, Inc., New York

Although an accomplished portrait painter, subsequent to being elected into the National Academy of Design in 1867 Wood turned his full attention to genre painting. Though relishing the bustle of the New York City art world, Wood delighted in spending summers at Athenwood, the home he built in Montpelier, Vermont. His pictures often contrast aspects of urban and rural life whether portraying the conviviality of The Village Post Office, the mirthful children in a country barn, or scenes of squalor intended, no doubt, as comedic, as in The Drunkard's Wife.

Threading a Needle combines Wood's accomplishments in portraiture with his newfound interest in genre. A meticulous character study, the artist has insightfully rendered the woman's furrowed brow, toothless mouth, and nearsighted concentration as she peers over her spectacles to thread a needle. Yet details such as the hole-worm woolen socks, scissors and pin cushion dangling from her waist, the homespun appearance of her simple dress, practical hair-do, and the spindle-back chair upon which she sits testify to her middle-class sense of frugality, practicality, and domestic economy. Though we don't know who she is-someone's grandmother or aunty, or perhaps simply an elderly housewife-the carefully and lovingly rendered details transform an ordinary portrait into a pleasing and nostalgic character study representative of a great genre picture.


Miss Tiffany

George Henry Story (1835-1923)

Oil on board, 21 inches by 18 inches

Collection of Gretchen Reilly

Most famous for his iconic portrait of Abraham Lincoln, George Henry Story was also a painter of landscapes and genre as well as curator and concurrent director at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City (1889-1906) and the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut (1899-1922).

Born in New Haven, Story apprenticed to a wood carver before journeying to Europe to further his art studies. Upon returning to America, Story practiced in a wide variety of locales including Portland, Maine, Washington, D.C., Cuba, and New York City.

Miss Tiffany is reputedly a portrait of a member of the family famous for the jewelry firm established by Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933). Her expressive face with its petulant look combine with her less than stellar behavior to transform this picture from a simple portrait into an engaging genre study. Story has portrayed the girl in an oversized rocking chair the better to emphasize her wee size and tender age. Seated there she appears a bit like a spoiled princess. The disarray represented by the torn and trampled book, carpet strewn with a doll, and things hanging out of the drawer hint at a recent pouting episode. Though well brought up and affluent, her demeanor is the epitome of the mischievous child theme, a favorite motif of many genre painters.


The Nervous Truant, 1861

John Williamson (1826-1885)

Oil on canvas, 10.12 inches by 8.25 inches

Courtesy, Spanierman Gallery, LLC, New York

Born near Glasgow, Scotland, Williamson emigrated to America as a child when he was five years old. He spent nearly his entire life in Brooklyn, New York though he traveled extensively throughout the Hudson River Valley and became known for his paintings of the Adirondack and Catskill mountain regions as well as New England and the Berkshires of Massachusetts. Williamson began exhibiting at the National Academy of Design when he was only twenty-four years old and was elected as an Associate member of the Academy in 1861 the same year as this picture was painted.

The Nervous Truant offers an amusing glimpse into the world of mid 19th century rural schools. Whereas 18th century children were primarily tutored in the home, by the mid 19th century the public school system was well established as a new generation of young women trained in State Normal Schools found vocations as teachers. Educational changes proved a popular theme for artists, perhaps best captured in Winslow Homer's idyllic painting, Snap the Whip (pictured above). Contrastingly, Williamson focuses on the anxiety of a youthful truant skipping class with the beckoning schoolhouse visible in the far distance.


Fisherman's Lesson

Abbott Fuller Graves (1859-1936)

Oil on canvas, 20 inches by 24 inches

Courtesy, Vose Galleries, Boston

A native of Weymouth, Massachusetts, Abbott Fuller Graves was a leading figure in what became known in the late 19th century as the Boston School, distinguished for fine draftsmanship, polished compositions, and interest in refined subject matter. Many Boston school artists studied in Paris. But rather than gravitate towards the Impressionists they tended to favor the Beaux Arts-influenced ateliers. Abbott Fuller Graves followed this approach, studying with Cormon, Laurens and Gervais. Graves became good friends with another leading Boston school painter, Edmund Tarbell, and the two men roomed together in Europe while studying painting. Returning to America in 1885, Grave taught at the Cowles School were he subsequently met Childe Hassam whose impressionist style soon began to influence him. But in 1887 Graves returned to Paris to study figure painting at the atelier of Jean Paul Laurens.

Fisherman's Lesson provides a classic example of Boston School painting as well as an interesting genre subject. Here an elderly fisherman tenderly teaches a little girl (his granddaughter?) to read. Her intently focused interest in the book held open before her and cherubic appearance are wonderful examples of the genteel subjects favored by Boston School artists. Yet the academic approach to the picture is indicated in the garb of the fisherman who so obviously wears his best shirt and bowtie as he poses for his portrait while simultaneously sporting "typical" fisherman's gear like the oilcloth hat and slicker. Additional studio props designed to establish the "rustic" quality of the setting are visible in the background.


Woman Reading to Children, c. 1900

Walter Farndon (1873-1964)

Oil on canvas, 25 inches by 30 inches)

Courtesy, Vose Galleries, Boston

An artist who only began painting at a time when genre pictures faded in popularity, Farndon emigrated to America from Coventry, England. Resident in New York City, he studied with the illustrious leader of the "Ashcan School," Robert Henri, who emphasized tactile brushwork, immediacy of expression, and an emphasis on common, urban subject matter, including immigrants and slums shunned by Impressionist and establishment artists. Yet he simultaneously studied at the National Academy of Design.

This combination of influences explains the painterly draftsmanship and commonplace subject of Woman Reading to Children, and the picture offers an interesting comparison with Abbott Fuller Graves's similar subject. Instead of a prop-filled studio interior as in the Graves, Farndon presents us with the urban reality of an El train commuter ride. Yet the mother appears as tranquil as if snuggled together with her daughters in a comfortable family parlor. Though the older girl appears slightly aloof, a recognition, perhaps, of an early independence characteristic of urban youth, her younger sibling seems as equally engrossed in the book as Graves's Fisherman's daughter. The entire composition represents a charming and convincingly "modern" version of the mother-and-child theme.


A Rooster, Hen, and Chicks

William Baptiste Baird (1847-1899)

Oil on canvas, 9.75 inches by 13 inches

Courtesy, Godel and Company, Inc., New York

William Baptiste Baird was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1847 but as an adult he moved to Paris to study painting where he exhibited extensively at the Paris Salon between 1872 and 1879. He also painted in various locales throughout France and Switzerland. Painting in the rural environs outside of Paris (at Barbizon), as well as in Brittany and around Lake Geneva. Baird specialized in the depiction of farmyard animals. Hens, chicks, cows, and rabbits were favored motifs. In America, Baird exhibited at the National Academy of Design from 1875 through 1879, as well as the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (1878, 1882, and 1883).

Though austensibly an animal subject, Rooster, Hen, and Chicks serves as a visual metaphor of the nuclear Victorian family. Well fed and cared for, the birds congregate before an open threshold, symbolic of the nurturing environment of hearth and home. Within this sphere, the mother contentedly protects and nurtures her young, serving as a role model of sorts for her human counterpart. The dominant rooster, somewhat distant from his offspring, looks on with paternal authority.



George Henry Story (1835-1923)

Oil on board, 9.75 inches by 13 inches

Courtesy, Spanierman Gallery, LLC, New York

Cape Codders and those who vacation here may find it surprising to learn that prior to the mid 19th century breach going and seaside recreation were practically non-existent. Harbors and wharfs were places of business, maritime commerce, fishing, and trade. It was only around the mid 19th century that Europeans and Americans began to view the seaside as a place for relaxation and a healthful "taking of the waters." Seaside hotels and spas soon sprung up to cater to this new craze for recreational bathing, and it was not long before "bathing costumes," as they were called, appeared. Compared to the bulky and form-concealing clothing required for most 19th century women, bathing attire was a daring, modern, and liberating innovation and the new fad attracted the attention of popular artists like Winslow Homer whose Bathers (upper left) accurately recorded two girls by the sea.

Story's Seashells depicts an alternative. Here a proper Victorian miss has kept her modesty by wearing all her crinolines and a bonnet to the seashore. The only concession to comfort seems to be the cool white color of her attire. Thus clad, she happily walks the beach picking up a curious array of shells and bric-a-brac that she decorously gathers in a cloth.


Winter Pastime, 1851

Charles Themmen ( active 1850s and 1860s)

Oil on wood panel, 13.75 inches by 18 inches

Courtesy, Vose Galleries, Boston

Very little is known about the life and career of Charles Themmen, an artist active in an around Boston in the mid nineteenth century. However, judging from the example of his work on view here, Themmen was quite an accomplished painter and well acquainted with the conventions of romantic landscape painting stemming from the northern European, particularly Dutch, tradition.

The novelty of ice-skating as a sport, and the particular quality and artistic challenge posed to an artist by the winter landscape indicate Themmen had an eye for painting both the drama of nature and rendering American scenery as if it were a hallowed landscape. The golden red light bathing the scene heightens this effect, as does the diminutive stature of the figures and the low horizon line. During the 1840s and 1850s, Americans in all regions of the country began to experience a growing sense of sectional pride. This would eventually tear the country apart in the conflagration of Civil War. But a decade or two earlier, sectionalism was still viewed as a way to celebrate a region's uniqueness, whether of New England, the South, or of frontier settlements. Winter scenes were particularly popular in northern and New England states and the beauty of Themmen's canvas demonstrates the reason for this appeal. For those who could not afford oil paintings, Currier and Ives' chromolithographs, such as their famous Winter in the Country, offered an affordable alternative.


Skating at Twilight, 1872

Johann M. Culverhouse (1825-1895)

Oil on canvas, 22 inches by 36 inches

Courtesy, Questroyal Fine Art, LLC, New York

Johann Culverhouse had great success as a genre painter in late-nineteenth century America. Born in Rotterdam, Holland, Culverhouse began working in the United States around 1849, establishing himself in New York City. There he painted charming scenes of people at work and play-families gathered around the hearth, selling wares at market, or ice-skating at twilight.

Drawing on the Dutch tradition of genre painting established by Johannes Vermeer, Jan Steen, and Pieter de Hooch in the seventeenth century, Culverhouse created images that captured the spirit of ordinary life. The paintings greatly appealed to collectors, and Culverhouse exhibited at the National academy of design, the Brooklyn Art Association, the Boston Athenaeum, and the American Art Union. In Skating at Twilight, while the landscape could very well be New England, the structures in the distant left background resemble windmills more appropriate for seventeenth century Dutch painting.


Women's Studio at the Boston Athenaeum

Alexander Pope, Jr. (1849-1924)

Oil on canvas, 20.12 inches by 26 inches

Courtesy, Godel and Company, Inc., New York

As women's roles began to change in the mid nineteenth century and opportunities for careers outside the home began to open up to them, art schools, heretofore the exclusive domain of male artists, sought to accommodate the growing ranks of female students. However, such accommodation was not without its own pitfalls for Victorians who deemed the presence of co-ed art classes inappropriate to the sensibilities and morals of young girls. Coeds might be embarrassed or worse by having to gaze upon and paint the nude human form (especially that of the male figure) in the presence of other young men. Women also feared the possible humiliation they might endure by having to be in the presence male students when drawing the nude female form.

To alleviate such concerns, separate classes were set up for men and women, and Pope's painting offers a rare glimpse into just such a class at the renowned Boston Athenaeum. Because of their formal attire, the women's smocks resemble head-to-toe aprons. They were also required (as were men) to spend hours drawing after antique casts before being allowed to progress to life drawing. Here, students diligently copy such famous models as Myron's Discus Thrower and a classical male nude after Praxiteles. The discrete placement of leaves and similar foliage to cover the statue's genitalia marks a further concession to Victorian ideas of modesty and propriety.


Safely Landed, 1873

Albert Fitch Bellows (1829-1883)

Watercolor and gouache on paper, 18.25 inches by 12.25 inches

Courtesy, Spanierman Gallery, LLC, New York

Born on November 29, 1829, Albert Fitch Bellows would become an eminent American landscape and genre painter. In his early twenties he traveled to Paris and subsequently entered the Royal Academy of Antwerp. In 1858 he became a member of both the Royal Society of Painters of Belgium and of the National Academy of Design in New York City. In later years Bellows turned more to watercolor, publishing a book on the subject in 1868. Bellows resided in Boston for a time but when fire destroyed his studio there he returned to New York City in 1872.

Safely Landed provides an outstanding example of Bellows' watercolor work. As was customary for most nineteenth century watercolorists, the technique is dry and opaque. Here, a handsomely garbed young woman bends down to assist a group of hatchlings struggling to swim to shore. Her act of kindness and maternal concern mirror that seen in William Baird's painting A Rooster, Hen, and Chicks and for similar reasons, for both convey assumptions about the nurturing and maternal role assumed of all proper women in 19th century American society.


Stop Fooling, 1890

Louis Henry Charles Moeller (1855-1930)

Oil on canvas, 18 inches by 24 inches

From a Private Collection

A native of New York, Moeller became one of the foremost anecdotal genre painters in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The son of a decorative painter, Moeller was initially taught by his father and subsequently attended classes at the National Academy of Design. Furthering his education in Europe, Moeller studied in Munich with the illustrious Frank Duveneck, Ludwig Lofftz, and Feodor Dietz where he developed a facility in the so-called "Munich style" that imitated the dark tonalities and facile brushwork of the seventeenth century Dutch masters. The genre paintings for which Moeller is best known are ones where figures vie for the viewer's attention with objects treated almost as independent still-life elements.

Such is the case in Stop Fooling. An enticing still life of cucumbers, tomatoes, a pitcher and glass of cider, a plate with ears of corn, and a napkin placed on a shelf compete for attention with the farm couple seated on the nearby stoop. The red bandana draped over the elderly man's knee draws our eye up to his lap where a bowl rests. His wife seated nearby also holds a bowl filled with beans or corn that is being cleaned and placed in the man's bowl. But their joint labor is momentarily interrupted by his joking ways and the corresponding admonishment on the part of his wife. Their intense interaction attracts our attention as we ponder the content of the exchange that has just past between them, made all the more interesting by their rustic and quaint garb.


Drinking from the Trough

Strafford Newmarch (active 1866-1874)

Oil on canvas, 24.25 inches by 20 inches

Courtesy, Questroyal Fine Art, LLC, New York

Very little is known about the life and career of Strafford Newmarch. But his work, as demonstrated in Drinking from the Trough, lies squarely within the idyllic depiction of rural American life as found in the lithographs and drawings of Currier and Ives and the early woodblock illustrations Winslow Homer executed for Harper's Magazine.

In an age of horse-drawn transport, it was a common sight to find public watering troughs and fountains or pumps placed along principal thoroughfares and roads where both horses and riders could refresh themselves. Newmarch depicts this everyday scene as almost idyllic with the leafy, pendulous trees forming a cooling and majestic archway of greenery, a young housewife patiently awaiting her turn at the pump, and wagon s and carriages neatly parked at the curb before shops.


Clothing District, Boston, Mass., 1860

Alfred K. Kipps (born 1834)

Watercolor on paper, 6.24 inches by 13.75 inches

Courtesy, Vose Galleries, Boston

In our technological world it is perhaps hard to imagine that little over 150 years ago most businesses were locally based and much of what we commonly regard today as department store merchandise was made at home (department stores, in fact, did not come into existence until well after the post Civil War era). But by the 1860s major American metropolitan areas such as Boston and New York had begun to witness the first signs of transformation with machine-made merchandise and mass produced factory goods (spurred on by the mass production of such items during the Civil War) becoming readily available in shops. This, in turn, led to the development of defined retail districts in many cities, such as the clothing district pictured here.

What is especially interesting is the way such a picture documents the transformation of the "old" Boston of seventeenth and early eighteenth century post and beam residences into a modern shopping area replete with multi story brick warehouses and shops. Here, a once grand residence has been recycled into the Charles J. Lovejoy Clothing Warehouse. The structure visible in the right background closely resembles Quincy Market and this picture may, in fact, be a watercolor rendering of that neighborhood. Pedestrians scurry about, a policeman stands guard, and a lorry and horse drawn wagon clamber over cobble stoned streets.


Bloodless Battle Between Dutch and Swedes, 1831

Charles Loring Elliot (1812-1868)

Oil on canvas

Collection of Heritage Museum and Gardens, Sandwich

Charles Loring Elliot became a leading portrait painter in New York City in the mid nineteenth century. After a career as an itinerant artist in upstate New York, he settled in the New York City proper where, after 1839, he enjoyed fame as the premiere portrait painter to that city's elite.

But Elliot also studied with the somewhat eccentric genre painter John Quidor whose work featured depictions of the folktales of Dutch and Swedish settles along the Hudson River valley, tales made famous to many Americans in the works of James Fennimore Cooper whose portrait Elliot also painted.

The influence of Dutch New York is evident here in this picture of a fanciful and mock fight between Dutch and Swedes. Although a contrived and somewhat fabled rendering, the intense caricature and costumed drama presented here marks the very early beginning of genre painting with its focused interest in depicting the common man. As such, it forms an interesting comparison with Fisher's art which in turn is closely based another early source for genre painters, that being the art of the Hudson River School landscape tradition.

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