Thursday, April 18, 2013

My Favorite American Beauties Re-Captured

Long ago, I purchased a book that has cheered me up, inspired me, and given me some goals to aspire to. The title: “American Beauties; Women in Art and Literature” with photos of paintings and artwork from the National Museum of American Art, and the Smithsonian Institution, Edited by Charles Sullivan.

I wish I could share the entire book with you. Works of art are matched with literary selections which make the viewing of the piece more interesting and complete. The purpose of this collection is to illustrate beauty “broadly defined” of American women.

“The Girl I Left Behind Me” was painted by Eastman Johnson sometime in 1870-75. It is an oil on a 42x347/8 canvas. The painting was illustrated with an anonymous song by the same name.  Energy is created by the wind and the ocean where wave’s crash and tumultuous skies roll past the young girl who is standing on a cliff longing for her lost love.

The next painting by Theodore Robinson 1887 is called “At the Piano; oil on 16.5x25.25 canvas. It is paired on the page with a poem called “The Day is Done” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

…”Who through long days of labor, and nights devoid of ease, still heard in his soul the music of wonderful melodies. Such songs have power to quiet the restless pulse of care, and come like the benediction that follows after prayer. . . And the night shall be filled with music, and the cares that infest the day, shall fold their tents like the Arabs, and as silently steal away.”

No artist can compare to John Singer Sargent for the painting of portraits. Here is Elizabeth Winthrop Chapman following her marriage in 1898. The porcelain skin color of the period and the expectations for women to be delicate and refined are captured here.

Harry Siddons Mowbray’s painting “Idle Hours, 1885” Oil on 12x16 canvas portrays women as having too much time on their hands. Ezra Pound’s poem “An Immortality” is used as illustration:

“Sing we for love and idleness, Naught else is worth the having. Though I have been in many a land, There is naught else in living. And I would rather have my sweet, Though rose-leaves die of grieving, Than do high deeds in Hungary to pass all men’s believing.”

The women in the painting would probably flutter and faint seeing today’s women “bring home the bacon,” “cook the bacon” all while pleasing a husband and taking care of the children, the laundry, and the home. They never dreamed of “role reversal” or men who would be willing to share the responsibilities.

Mary Cassatt is one of my favorite artists. Her “Sara in a Green Bonnet” 1901, oil on 16x13.5/8 canvas captures the impish smile of the mischievous girl behind all that frippery.

Lara Wheeler Waring’s portrait of “Anna Washington” who was most likely “hired help” in 1927 is an oil on 20x16 canvas. The poem “Old Mary” by Gwendolyn Brooks was used in illustration:

“My last defense is the present tense. It little hurts me now to know I shall not go Cathedral-hunting in Spain nor cherrying in Michigan or Maine.”

The painting captures the look of resignation and longing in Anna Washington’s face. We feel for her. We want to wrap our arms around her and comfort her.

My own pastel painting "Tansy's Pride" shows a more confident woman who is not only self assured, but comfortable in her own skin. Prints are available for purchase at