Thursday, July 19, 2007

On Sewing

Heather at A Place of Quiet Rest posted this quote on Tuesday:
"It is a token of healthy and gentle characteristics when women of high thoughts and accomplishments love to sew; especially as they are never more at home with their own hearts than while so occupied."
- Nathanial Hawthorne

Monday, July 16, 2007

Mending by Daniel Garber

Mending by Daniel Garber is my favorite painting of a woman sewing. I believe that this is also a portrait of Garber's wife. Daniel Garber was a member of the Pennsylvania Impressionists. He was born in 1880 and died in 1958 from a fall off a ladder in his studio. He and his fellow artists in the New Hope, Pennsylvania, art colony resisted the growing tendency toward abstraction of the early 20th century and instead persisted in painting very beautiful landscapes and paintings of their families, friends, and homes. Why do I love this painting? The lady is sewing and she is very concentrated in her work, which earns her our respect. It does not seem as if she is thinking about anything else; her mending demands her total concentration. However, although absorbed in her work, her crossed leg and the graceful dangling of her foot show that she is also relaxed. She is content with what she is doing--she expresses focus but not tension. This painting also reminds me of Vermeer's work, because of the smock, the blue of her skirt and of the atmosphere, her profiled pose, and her hair. For these reasons also I find that this painting has a religious quality. The mender's posture is bowed, her head is lowered. This is because of the way she is holding her work, but her posture, which is chosen by the painter, also gives the impression of humility. The permeation of the painting with blue and light tel me that the real subject is the love that Garber has for his subject, and which he wants to raise to the sublime. The blue and the mender's bowed head remind me of Mary, and the prominence of the little straw basket at her feet reminds me also of this painting by Gerard David, Rest on the Flight to Egypt painted in the Netherlands in 1510--

and so I am always inspired by Garber's Mending to sew and seek peace in doing so.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Thinking About Colors

Newlands Valley by Beatrix Potter

I think that one subject that our feminine forebearers thought about a lot more than we do today is color, not as in interior decorating but color as a phenomenon in itself. I was reminded of this when I read a description that Beatrix Potter wrote of the landscape around her when she was a young woman.

Notice her concentration on color and naming a color in this description: "In summer, the distant landscapes are intensely blue.... Not less beautiful is the winter. When the oaks are clothed in a delicate tracery of snow and hoar-frost, they sometimes look quite orange-coloured in the sunshine against the sky, and yet the hoar-frost scarcely drips... Have you ever noticed what a peculiar blue the snow is during a white frost? I know no colour like it, except that milky lemon-blue which you find in the seed of wild balsam. At such times of frost and snow, the two great cedars on the lawn look their best. The snow lies in wreaths on their broad outstretched arms, or melting, trickles down the dusty green bark and red stains."

Of course, Beatrix Potter was an artist from a young age. However, the ways of my own great-grandmother (pictured here) suggest that color may have been a preoccupation of ladies of the late 19th century.

Born in 1893, my great-grandmother was an invalid for the last four years of her life and stayed mostly in bed. For some periods of time, she lived with our family. One day my mother asked me to take some lunch up to her in the bedroom where she was staying. I went into her room and there she was lying on her side in the bed. I asked her if I had wakened her, and she said, "Oh no, I've been awake for a long time. I've had a lovely morning." And intrigued since I could not see any evidence of activity, I asked her, "What were you doing?" and she replied, "Oh, I was thinking of all the different colors there are in the world." I found this amazing.

I always admired my great-grandmother, who had been a schoolteacher before she married the town doctor and raised four children. Although she was not an artist herself, she was a descendant of the painting family of Charles Willson Peale, with her mother a Peale from three separate family lines. Like Beatrix Potter, she was a naturalist as a hobby. She kept notebooks in which she pressed plants labeled with their English and Latin names. Before she took sick, she would take us on long walks through the woods and was able to tell us the names of every kind of moss, plant, and tree. I do not know if this was the norm for ladies of her day, but nature and all of its wonders were an unending source of joy for her, even as she lay as an invalid in her last years and could only imagine colors.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Fine Arts Friday: Girl Sewing in an Orchard

This is a painting by Edmund Charles Tarbell (1862-1938), one of the famous ten American impressionists. The painting is called Girl Sewing in the Orchard. I have collected numbers of paintings of women sewing. This one is marked by the peaceful surroundings in which the girl has chosen to do her needle work and by the contented expression on her face. She seems very peaceful. Perhaps she is sewing a hem in a skirt of dress that she has just made, because the relaxation in her face indicates that the work is not totally absorbing. The dress is white. Is she putting the finishing touches on her wedding dress?
What is she thinking about? I have been pondering this question about what women of the 19th century thought about, when I consider the constant inundation of our own lives by mass media. Just try to imagine the silence of life in a rural or semi-rural setting of the 19th century. There is no television. Advertising, to the extent that it exists at all, may be found only in town or on the side of a bottle. There is no radio. There is no hum of the dishwasher, of the washer, of the dryer, of the air conditioner, of the dehumidifier. Marketeers are not calling on the phone; in fact, no one is calling on the phone or the cellphone or any phone. The sound of rushing cars is unknown. There is no music that is not created by real people gathered together or by a musician playing or practicing on their own in the same house. What does she hear?
She is sitting in the orchard in what seems to be the light of the early afternoon. Birds are singing as they go about their business, but not in their exuberant symphony of the beginning and end of the day. The buzzing of flies and other insects, perhaps, can be heard. Are there other animals to be heard in the girl's presence? Is there a goose squawking in a nearby pond? Are there younger brothers and sisters playing and laughing? Is a mother scolding someone in the kitchen in the house?
Of course she hears her own thoughts. And this is the most fascinating. Perhaps if she is soon to be a bride, she is thinking of her future bridegroom and the coming days with this young man. That is one answer, as brides tend to obsess about these things. But what of the many women of the last century, with no major life event on the horizon, for whom sewing was a constant activity, but an activity never performed in front of a TV set? What did they think about? It is hard to imagine our own minds uncluttered with the constant stimulus of the media and the buzz of one machine or another. Are they thinking of their family or friends? Are they wondering how to make the sugar they have left stretch to make another cake? Are they thinking of music? Are they praying? Are they remembering a poem? Are they writing a letter to a relative in their mind before they sit down to actually write at the end of the day? There is no hopping over to the computer to write an email and send it off in the space of minutes with the expectation of receiving a reply within hours or a few days at most. A letter then was sent with the knowledge that the conditions of both the sender and receiver may be completely changed by the time the letter arrives--a child may have died in the meantime; the receiver may be ill and bed-ridden; a parent may have passed away; someone is lost at sea; the address may now be wrong.
I ponder the extreme isolation and the imposed loneliness that many in the past suffered. Are people less lonely today? It does not seem so. Yet, thinking about the silence that surrounded those who lived before the age of mass media and the precariousness of their lives--with the deaths of many women in childbirth and many children through sickness--we can only have deep respect and admiration for the courage with which they led their lives in the face of expected loss and loneliness. And we must also wonder, with their lives unclogged by the noise of the mass market and media, what did they reflect on, what did they hear, what did they see? And are we, struggling to keep from drowning under the noisy hustle and bustle and treadmills of our lives, still alive to the perceptions, far more subtle, that entered their minds?

Thank you for any thoughts you might have on this! Also if you want a screensaver of women sewing, let me know.