Saturday, October 17, 2009

Blackboard -- Teachers of the Past 1

Blackboard by Winslow Homer, 1877

This is the other picture my friend wanted me to write about it. I have never found anyone who didn't love this painting.

According to the National Gallery of Art, where this watercolor resides, scholars were long perplexed about the shapes on the blackboard, whose corner holds Homer's signature in "chalk." Art historians have since discovered that the shapes signify that the young woman is teaching "drawing," which was considered a necessity for children, since it enabled industrial design and construction of buildings and presumbably also furniture.

The composition echoes the shapes on the blackboard in the angularity of the teacher's apron and the checks of the gingham, the stacked rectangles of the background, the symmetrical placement of the blackboard and teacher, and the slate monochrome of the entire painting. The one contrast is the teacher's fresh and very young face. In fact, so young does her expression seem that if she were not holding the pointer, we would think she was a student.

In Schoolwomen of the Prairies and Plains by Mary Hurlbut Cordier, I have found documented confirmation of the reality of Homer's painting and feel as though I have found this teacher herself. Cordier tells us of one E. Mary Lacy of Iowa:
At age fourteen, E. Mary Lacy attended a four-week teachers' institute in Emmetsburg, Iowa: "New subjects were being introduced, one of which was drawing. It was here that I received my first lessons and though I never became proficient, it was encouraging to know that I had a certain amount of ability." The following spring, 1877, when she was just past fifteen, she started teaching school eight miles from home.


Vega Vonne said...

What a lovely bog you have here. I learned about you through Lady Lydia's Homeliving Blogspot. Where have you ladies been all my life? Rita

Thomas said...

Do you know if this one is on display at the NGA at the moment? I would love to go down and see it.

Linda said...

Thomas, I don't know if Blackboard is there, but here is the URL for the citation. I couldn't find confirmation that it is there now; it was definitely part of their Homer exhibition of a few years ago. Sorry I can't be more helpful. I know that the Smithsonian, of which the National Gallery of Art, has a lot of Homer paintings. Hope you find it! It must be exquisite "in person."*%26sa%3DN%26um%3D1

jd1694 said...

I for one, do not like the painting. It is a pleasing combination of monochromatic color and geometry, but when you look at the girl's face, you don't want to be in her classroom. I actually took her for an unprepared student who had been brought to the board to present what she knew, but was being either truculent, bored or evasive. Her left arm is bent and tucked awkwardly under the right arm---try to mimic the pose and you will feel how uncomfortable it is. The whole feeling of the painting is closed and tight, once you go beyond the first visuals...