Now that it’s officially June, Hawthorne Fine Art is pleased to announce the release of its annual publication, Summer Reading. Featuring twenty-four works from the collection alongside complimentary passages by seminal American authors, Summer Reading encourages a dialogue between the two disciplines that both expands and enriches the viewing experience.
This year’s edition, entitled “Background with Figures,” takes its inspiration from nineteenth-century portraitist Cecilia Beaux’s autobiography of the same name. Ranging in subject matter from the figurative to the panoramic, the featured artists represent the wide stylistic ranges evident in nineteenth century painting in America: from the Hudson River School, to Luminism, to Impressionism. Among the works featured in the selection are paintings by Martin Johnson Heade (1819–1904), Edward Gay (1837-1928), Paul Cornoyer (1864–1923), and James Carroll Beckwith (1852–1917).
“Background with Figures” serves as a point of departure from which these works can be appreciated. On a formal level, the paintings included in the publication fall into the categories of the figurative, and landscape. With the inclusion of literary texts, however, engagement becomes one of context. Just as Beaux’s emotive and descriptive autobiographical account enhances our understanding and experience of her art, so too are these pieces endowed with a new dimensionality when engaged with their literary counterparts.
James Carroll Beckwith’s painting Nita is a distinguished example of the intimate vignettes the artist captured of his attractive female models. The composition is brilliantly executed in the placement of the figure close to the picture plane with the fresh rolling countryside situated behind her. Alive and vivid, the subject extends a thoughtful gaze and privies the viewer to her self-assured, yet soft mien. One immediately sees the influence of Beckwith’s colleague, John Singer Sargent. Juxtaposed against the poetry of William Carlos Williams, Nita takes on a linguistic cadence to echo and compliment its impressionist inflection.
Your thighs are appletrees
whose blossoms touch the sky.
Which sky? The sky
where Watteau hung a lady’s
slipper. Your knees
are a southern breeze—or
a gust of snow. Agh! what
sort of man was Fragonard?
—As if that answered
-From Portrait of a Lady by William Carlos Williams
Under the Birches, an excellent example of Edward Gay’s early work, is a pre-Raphaelite take on classic American landscape grandeur. In this highly accomplished genre scene awash with skillfully-rendered detail, Gay depicts two children picking berries within a verdant, enchanted landscape and invites the viewer into the composition with a sun-kissed path surrounded by emerald grasses and scattered wildflowers. In all of its detail, Under the Birches presents an idyllic vision of a pastoral American landscape and society; In Summer Reading, it is is further endowed with lavish sensory engagement by the prose of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman.
It was late in the afternoon, and the light was waning. There was a difference in the look of the tree shadows out in the yard. Somewhere in the distance cows were lowing and a little bell was tinkling; now and then a farm-wagon tilted by, and the dust flew; some blue-shirted laborers with shovels over their shoulders plodded past; little swarms of flies were dancing up and down before the peoples’ faces in the soft air. There seemed to be a gentle stir arising over everything for the mere sake of subsidence — a very premonition of rest and hush and night.
-From A New England Nun by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
Martin Johnson Heade’s Red Rose exemplifies the unique approach to still life that he cultivated during his later years. A single red rose is isolated against a gray background, emphasizing its fragility and the somber truth that – torn from its natural landscape – the blossom will soon wither and die. At the same time, this isolation seems to elevate the rose as an aesthetic object to be contemplated, akin to displaying natural specimens within glass cases. The delicacy with which the bloom is painted further emphasizes its vulnerable beauty. In Summer Reading, Heade’s Red Rose is infused with infinite narrative possibility by the poetry of Emily Dickinson.
Nobody knows this little Rose —
It might a pilgrim be
Did I not take it from the ways
And lift it up to thee.
Only a Bee will miss it —
Only a Butterfly,
Hastening from far journey —
On its breast to lie —
Only a Bird will wonder —
Only a Breeze will sigh —
Ah Little Rose — how easy
For such as thee to die!
-From Nobody knows this little Rose by Emily Dickinson
Paul Cornoyer’s Early Evening, Empire Park, New York (1910) is one of the impressionistic paintings of leisurely activities in New York City’s public spaces for which he is well known. Cornoyer’s gestural style evokes a darkening atmosphere as pedestrians cross the park at evening time. The figures, set against their city backdrop, evoke the sentiment behind Beaux’s autobiography, as well as that of a stage set. Early Evening takes on the space of a theatre further with a dialogue excerpt from O. Henry’s short story, The Voice of the City.
I repaired to the park and sat in the moon shade. I thought and thought, and wondered why none could tell me what I asked for.
And then, as swift as light from a fixed star, the answer came to me. I arose and hurried – hurried as so many reasoners must, back around my circle. I knew the answer and I bugged it in my breast as I flew, fearing lest someone would stop me and demand my secret.
Aurelia was still on the stoop. The moon was higher and the ivy shadows were deeper. I sat at her side and we watched a little cloud tilt at the drifting moon and go asunder, quite pale and discomfited.
And then, wonder of wonders and delight of delights! Our hands somehow touched, and our fingers closed together and did not part.
After half an hour Aurelia said, with that smile of hers:
“Do you know, you haven’t spoken a word since you came back!”
“That,” said I, nodding wisely, “is the Voice of the City.”
-From The Voice of the City by O. Henry
Such pairings – each a small case study in the span of nineteenth century art and literature – gives depth and context to the relationships between these artists, painted figures, and their backgrounds – all within their own time.
Summer Reading 2014: Background with Figures will be available in June from Hawthorne Fine Art. For more information on the publication, or to receive a copy, please contact the gallery at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by phone at 212.731.0550