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.