THE NEW NOVEL
I thought I'd start a series about those works of art that have made an impact
on me over the years. I might as well start by discussing my favorite painting. As
far as I can recall, I've only seen it once in real life. I have seen so many Winslow
Homer exhibitions over the decades, that perhaps I am wrong. I know I saw
it at the Whitney Museum's exhibition entitled American Master Drawings and
Watercolors: Works on Paper from Colonial Times to the Present in late 1976. If
memory serves, the date was late November--Thanksgiving weekend. I was to
be married in a month and was home one last time as a single man. I headed
into NYC specifically to see this show--primarily to see the works of Homer and
Eakins and other favorite American painters.
No one can really say why a work of art strikes someone in a particular way. I have so many
works of art that have moved me that selecting one as my "favorite" almost seems jejune. But
The New Novel has been my choice since I first saw it that day nearly half a century ago. Winslow
Homer is more famous for his watercolor seascapes than works like this idyllic scene. In fact,
he's probably more famous for his oils than his watercolors, although I think I generally admire
the latter group more. I have traveled far and wide to be able to see virtually every one of his
known paintings and drawings. Seeing this work, though, is a rarity because it is owned by a
small museum up in Massachusetts--the Museum of Fine Arts in Springfield--and because it is
regularly kept out of exhibitions because the work is so sensitive to light and the museum's
curators are determined to prevent the watercolors from fading. Not long ago, the museum
had it in storage for four years, finally bringing it back in 2015.
While it seems to be a typical subject for a painting--attractive woman amidst natural setting--there
is a great deal to consider about the work, so it should not merely be dismissed as a kind of still life.
There is some mystery about the subject of The New Novel. First, the woman depicted in the
painting has taken on an air of mystery. Homer had favorite subjects and favorite models. He even
liked to paint images of women reading, as you can see below:
The paintings above are striking in that they depict independent women giving themselves over
to their imagination, with little regard for propriety (just look at their physical postures) or societal
expectations. They are not concerned with pleasing men, or tending to family, or undertaking
some mindless activity. They are participating in an activity frowned on by the men who controlled
their lives--they are learning about the world through the eyes of others. Books were seen by men
as deleterious influences on the women in their lives. I can still remember my father (who was born
in the 19th Century) saying that he worried that a play he saw with my mother would influence
her negatively. He didn't think his own thoughts would be influenced because he was a man, but
he worried that women, who are by nature, he thought, weak and susceptible to malign influences,
might come away corrupted.
The paintings above lack the intensity of The New Novel, but it's clear that Homer is not passing
judgment on these women; rather he is singling them out as sentient individuals with their own
The model in The New Novel must have been a powerful presence in the interior life of the painter
himself. This painting was first shown in 1877 at the American Watercolor Society. Homer had
used this beautiful young woman as a model multiple times before, but after this work was shown,
she never appeared again in any of his works. She is so lovingly depicted, though, that one might
speculate that she had entranced the painter. This is a more sensual portrait than the other two
works. The model is so absorbed in her book that it is as if the painter is not present.
Here is a brief critique of the work:
This is a young woman languidly lying down on her side, embracing a book as she might a lover, holding it close and dear, almost caressing its binding, her eyes half-lidded in dream-state transport. She is not engaged in “productive” activity at all; she is consumed within an inner life that leaves her unavailable to responsibilities, family, and potential suitors: She’s here but not here, gone into a world unavailable to those closest to her, that of her imagination, a dangerous place for a woman to be in the 1870s. Opening a woman’s mind to imagination was tantamount to opening Pandora’s Box.
The image crackles with latent sexuality and the eroticism of feminine power. It is a deeply intimate portrait, and Homer seems to spying on her, enjoying the scene as a voyeur enraptured by the young girl’s complete lack of self-consciousness. Her foot emerges from her dress, stretched, cat-like, as if the passage she’s reading requires a physical response. Reading here is a pagan act, a mystic rite performed in a sylvan setting that almost begs for fauns spying upon her from within the background brush.
While that last part may be a little over the top, the setting in The New Novel is a more secluded and private one than can be seen in the first two paintings. The model seems oblivious to the painter,
though, and perhaps it is her lack of a response that led to their artistic break-up. Sure, there could
be all sorts of mundane and pedestrian reasons why she never appeared again in Homer's works,
but one can only assume, based on the loving look of this work, that her absence must have torn
at the painter's heart. She seems quite content to be by herself.
Below is a brief video of the museum restoring the work to public access.
When I look at the painting, I often ask myself why it holds me in its particular gaze. Perhaps it is
the simplicity of the composition. Perhaps because it depicts the act of reading, it has special
significance for me. Perhaps I am attracted to redheads or I just find the arrangement of colors
appealing. But I cannot help but think about it since the poster for the Whitney exhibition has
bedecked my walls since 1976.