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 interior lives.
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 the link of a one-minute 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.