Curiosity: forget “Cherchez la femme” (Look for the woman.) “Cherchez l’histoire.” (Look for the story.)
We attended–as members–the European and American Arts Council lecture at the Portland Art Museum on Thursday evening. Chief Curator Bruce Guenther gave his long-postponed talk A Girl and Her Dog: 19th Century American Genre Painting, which framed Adele and her Newfoundland in a much larger context. It was, of course, gratifying to be recognized as the donors of the painting, but it was even more gratifying to understand the way in which this painting by Seymour Joseph Guy helps to bring a unifying theme to the Museum’s 19th century American art collection.
In her introduction, Council President Carol Ann Caveny mentioned my line “It was like sending a daughter off to college,” when we gave the painting to Portland Art Museum. In retrospect, I think it was more like sending us off to college–at least off to study. Eighteen months later, we have learned the sad details of Adele’s adult life and–since Thursday–we also understand much more about the development of late 19th Century American Painting.
Mr. Guenther discussed two major trends: the use of photography and the development of genre painting. By mid-century, various techniques for making photographs were available and widely used by artists to capture images “in the field” and then compose their compositions in the studio. Guy used this approach in the painting of Adele and her dog, as Mr. Guenther showed with–much higher definition images than these–
a comparison of daguerreotype
Guy was one of the founding members of the Brooklyn Art Social, which, as Mr. Guenther explained, was representative of artists’ growing awareness of the middle class as potential clients. No longer appealing only to the wealthy aristocracy, artists began to paint scenes of ordinary daily life rather than religious, historical or mythological subjects. The general public was welcomed at these regular exhibitions where they could purchase finished works–framed and ready to hang–or they could commission paintings.
Two years after he painted Adele, Seymour Guy joined his friend John George Brown–another transplanted English artist–at the famed 10th St. Art Studios, the first modern building specifically designed for the use of artists. Mr. Guenther explained on Thursday how the 10th St Art Studios formed the nucleus central to the evolution of Greenwich Village as a community of artists and writers. The building featured twenty-five studios arranged around a central, double-height shared exhibition hall, with a large glass ceiling and gas lighting. J. Alden Weir, Albert Bierstadt and, now, Seymour Guy are three of its early tenants represented at Portland Art Museum. C.E.S. Wood, one of the founders of Portland Art Museum, participated in “trunk shows” arranged by Weir’s agent, which ensured that Portland and the Museum were on the leading edge.
The painting of Adele and her dog is a fairly straight-forward portrait, although Mr. Guenther pointed out that there are several story-telliing elements in the picture. She is wearing her first communion dress. Her left hand reaches out to hold back the dog until she throws the ball, her fingers nicely set off by the dog’s black fur, clearly showing the gold first communion ring. Well, not so clearly in this image, but very clear on Mr. Guenther’s slide. Action is about to happen: she holds the ball up with her right hand, ready to throw. We can almost hear the dog’s eager panting as his left foot steps into Lake Champlain.
Genre painting quickly evolved into works that implied much more complex stories. We saw Unconscious of Danger, also by Seymour Guy, at the Barnes Collection in Philadelphia a couple of years ago. I can’t quite tell, is the girl is reaching out to warn the boy to be careful or is she about to push him off the ledge?
We saw Guy’s Guess who? just last month, at the Brooklyn Museum. We can see that the boy had been reading a book, illuminated by the bright daylight streaming in the window. Given the title, we can imagine that the girl is a surprise visitor. Or is she just his sister, giving him a hard time?
Mr. Guenther showed several examples by other artists of even more complex stories, dealing with far more suggestive situations. You had to be there.
Next time you go to the museum–Portland Art Museum or any other art museum, give yourself time to figure out the story as you gaze at each painting. You can probably come up with more than one.