Friday, January 22, 2016

Fine Arts Friday: It's the Bowl

I Say Goodbye to Mother and the Cove or Jim Hawkins Leaves Home,  from Treasure Island illustrated by N. C. Wyeth, 1907

When I saw this painting by N. C. Wyeth in the Brandywine River Museum of Art in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, I looked at it for a long time. We see in the center foreground the young Jim Hawkins carrying his small bag of clothes and setting out, just at the point that he has overcome his hesitancy over his mother's tears and now, more determined than fearful, is ready to step away from his home into the big world to find he knows not what.

Jim stands in the forefront of the painting, his body in strong relief against a shaft of light slanting across the house he is leaving. His mother is behind him facing toward the house, her head in her apron as she weeps. When will she hear from again? When or will she ever see him again?

The composition shows N. C. Wyeth's years of training under the illustrator Howard Pyle, as all the elements on the right side of the painting lead our eyes to the path Jim is now set upon. His mother stands against the brighter side of the house and the sky--separate from the darker shades in which her boy now steps.

But what transfixed me was the bowl. Why did Wyeth put the bowl in the window? It sits in alignment with both Mrs. Hawkins' buried head and Jim's face. It seems to symbolize the tie between them.  Perhaps more than any other object, crockery can be imbued with memories and meaning. "This was my father's cup."  "My mother always used this bowl in the morning." The bowl seems like a small detail, but when I imagine the painting without it, I find that the emotional impact is diminished.

N. C. Wyeth believed an artist has to pour his entire self into a subject to paint it. Only one year before he completed Jim Hawkins Leaving Home, he had started his own home after marrying Miss  Caroline Bockius of Wilmington, Delaware. In 1908 he bought land in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, with the proceeds from his Treasure Island illustrations and built his brick house for his young family. He wrote his mother in 1911, "How I look forward to our life in this snug little house.... Home spirit is the most religious thing I possess." And in another letter, as in 1905, he writes of how a box in which his mother had mailed a cake to him had made him homesick, as "it reeked of odors that told inexhaustible stories."

Jim's departure was not the only time Wyeth pointedly placed crockery in a work. In Mowing, he paints a young girl taking water out to a mower. The beautiful pitcher she holds glistens in the sunshine like a jewel. We can contrast this pitcher with the wooden bucket in Winslow Homer's painting of a similar scene (see below). It seems more appropriate to take water out to the fields in a bucket than in good dishware, so we can only guess that the pitcher had significance for N. C. Wyeth. In both Jim Hawkins Leaving Home and Mowing, the kitchen objects lend a grace note of "home" to the image.

Mowing by N. C. Wyeth, 1911

Temperance Meeting (Noontime) by Winslow Homer, 1874. 

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