Here is a piece that always made me laugh. Sometime around 1815, the Connecticut watercolorist Eunice Pinney created this odd interior scene of two women sitting opposite each other in a formal parlor and seemingly staring at each other in awkward silence. It is small, about 10" x 15". The only animated character here is the baby held in the arms of the woman at the left. And even the baby is strangely rendered as a miniature adult.
And yet, this is one of the greatest folk art interiors ever made. The design sensibility that Pinney demonstrates is remarkable, even at first glance where one is drawn to the piece by its color and symmetry. Beyond that, it only gets better. The two women are drawn with organic s-curves that mirror each other. The flattened, vertical perspective of the Queen Anne table and the floor make the patterns and shapes of each leap off the paper. The draperies likewise hang symmetrically, and have a texture that makes them appear like the hanging branches of a weeping willow. The chairs in which the women are sitting are so ephemeral that they almost disappear. Of all the elements in this watercolor they are perhaps the most pure in form.
The question that has always nagged me about "Two Women" is the meaning of the painting. Who were these women? What are they doing and why did Pinney paint them? Is this a portrait of family members? Pinney was well known for her watercolor memorial paintings; we have three of those in the Fenimore Art Museum collection. Is this a tribute to a lost loved one? Or is it based on a print, as some other of Pinneys works were known to have been.
We may never know. But staring at this piece and trying to unlock its secrets is not an unpleasant pastime.