Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Cutters

Going and Coming by Norman Rockwell, the cover picture for the latest edition of The Cutters.

The Cutters by Mrs. Bess Streeter Aldrich was recommended as a book that celebrated the domestic arts. Recently I read a quote from Aldrich where she noted that just because a book chronicles the happy part of life does not make it any less valid than those books that chronicle despair. With this prompting I sought to read one of her books and ordered The Cutters.

I found the book to be a bit disappointing, because it seemed like a series of short stories without a centralized plot. I felt that the portrait of the mother was somewhat formulaic--on the one hand, she loves and enjoys her family and her domestic life in a small town, but on the other hand, she constantly yearns to be urbane and sophisticated and to make her name in the wider world. It turns out, since the grass is always greener on the other side, that all of her role models for sophisticated urbanity would rather be like her and have a family and live in a small town.

Thus the book is not exactly a celebration of domestic life, since the mother of the family remains somewhat uncomfortable in this role, or rather feels compelled to reject its joys--as has been the case with many women in modern times. See The Homemaker by Dorothy Canfield for a different exploration of this difficulty.

Where the book shines is in the portrait of the grandmother, a pioneer woman now widowed and living with the family of her son. The chapter on her birthday reunion with all five of her sons and the last chapter in which Mrs. Cutter confronts the reality that her children are all now grown up are, to me, the most profound in the book, because in these chapters, Mrs. Aldrich explores the mysteries of the passage of time, and does it beautifully.

The portrait of the grandmother has made me anxious to read Mrs. Aldrich's novel of a pioneer woman, A Lantern in Her Hand.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Imagine This: Preparing a Medieval Feast

Whenever I think of feasting, I think of Norman Rockwell's painting, Freedom from Want, and Thanksgiving dinner in the USA. But the large American Thanksgiving family feast is really chickenfeed compared with what I recently read was the norm for the feast in the Middle Ages.

An illustration of a medieval feast in the Les Tres Riches Heures de Duc de Berry.

As reported in Women in the Middle Ages by Marty Williams and Anne Echols:
The amounts and types of foods consumed at banquets seem astounding by modern standards, though we should take note that apparently huge numbers of guests were present on some occasions. At Avignon in the 1340s, Pope Clement VI gave a feast that included approximately 13,000 birds, 1,000 sheep, 50,000 fruit trees, and 200 casks of wine…. Less wealthy individuals rarely had such elaborate feasts or ornamental dishes, but they usually kept amply stocked larders. On an average day—Thursday, August 17, 1413, for example—Dame Alice de Bryene served 146 loaves of bread, one and a half quarters of beef, a lamb, two mutton joints, three quarters of bacon, and 30 pigeons, all washed down with ale and wine. Large quantities of food were necessary because even the lesser nobility rarely dined alone. Alice de Bryene’s household accounts show that on most days her kitchens provided for her large household, several guests, and a number of boon workers—villeins engaged in performing their required days of extra work on their lord’s demesne, the lord’s portion of the manor lands--[or, everyone in the neighborhood-Linda].

For her husband's funeral in 1466, Margaret Paulson, the widow of a wealthy merchant, cooked up a spread with 41 pigs, 1,000 eggs, 49 calves, a great number of chicken and geese, and a large quantity of beer.

This gives you an idea of the huge number of guests at the medieval dinner table, which on big holidays might bring together all the on the manor.

Kirstin Lavransdatter, by the Nobel Prize-winning Norwegian writer Sigrid Undset, gives a good idea of the many duties of the medieval "lady of the manor," who worked hard and often ran the manorial agricultural and industrial enterprise alone when the husband was away to war. Kirstin Lavransdatter is a trilogy of three books--I had to read to the end of the last one to fully appreciate this wonderfully told story of a medieval wife and mother. My mother introduced me to Kirstin Lavransdatter--it was her favorite book.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Has Mending Ever Been So Elegant?

Mending, Edmund Tarbell, 1910

Three years before the International Exposition of Modern Art—the famous “Armory Show”—in Chicago, which introduced the United States to 634 works from Goya to the Cubists, Edmund Tarbell painted Mending. Tarbell, as did many American artists, resisted the turn to abstract art and continued to paint interiors reminiscent of Vermeer and the painters of the Dutch Golden Age. Tarbell's interiors were those of New England--sparse, restrained, not particularly comfortable, but elegant.

I don't like to mend at all but this painting might inspire me to. Nowadays, inundated with relatively cheap clothing, when something rips or tears, we replace it; we don't mend it. But mending used to have its own entire day in the housewives' weekly calendar:
Wash on Monday
Iron on Tuesday
Mend on Wednesday
Churn on Thursday
Clean on Friday
Bake on Saturday
Rest on Sunday

Clothes were worn til they literally wore out, and then the remaining cloth was recycled into quilts and other items.

Here we see someone who is clearly not of the working class doing her mending with considerable concentration. The composition draws us immediately to the girl's face. As is often the case, the painting of a woman sewing is also a painting of a individual in contemplation, deep in thought, either about the problem at hand or about something else that we cannot know.

Meanwhile, the light falls upon her and the room from the window at the left. Tarbell himself is concentrating on capturing the play of light bouncing off objects of color and the color this creates in the air. With the exception of the girl's black skirt and the black table legs, no part of the paint surface is purely the same color. The painting is in constant motion, as color shifts from one hue to another and into the next color.

The light also halos the head of the subject and is how we are drawn to her face in concentration.