Thursday, June 17, 2010

Bringing Eliza Back Down to Earth

This striking portrait of a young girl seated in a rocker in front of a landscape scene has been the subject of debate here for many years. She is identified as Eliza smith of Providence, Rhode Island, painted probably in the 1830s on a canvas measuring about 36” x 27”. We do know a bit about Eliza from an article published in the journal Rhode Island History in 1978. She was born in 1831, grew up in Providence, and became a well-known schoolteacher in that town from 1860 to 1889. Eliza never married, and when she died in 1901 she left her possessions, including this portrait, to friends, as she had no descendants.

According to our records there once was a card attached to the reverse that read” Eliza smith Born Stuart St. Providence 1827./Taught for 40 years in the schools of Johnson, R.I./Painting by pastor of Broad Street Christian Church, 1832.” Unfortunately this card was lost prior to our acquiring the painting, but it is worth noting the inaccuracies in the information when compared to the research on Eliza. The pastor of the Broad Street Christian Church in the 1830s has been identified as Rev. Elijah W. Burrows, but it is hard to name him as the artist based on a card we have never seen and that included so many factual errors. So the painting remains unattributed to any known artist.

It is the picture itself, however, that has caused the controversy I alluded to above. Take a look at the setting for Eliza’s portrait. The artist has placed her in what appears to be a room interior, clearly indicated by the patterned carpet and baseboard. Behind Eliza there is a landscape with a turbulent sky, distant hills, and several buildings including a church. The buildings have not been identified as any known structures in Providence.

The weird thing about the painting is that the floor and baseboard do not seem to bear any visual relation to the landscape scene behind the sitter. There is no corner to the scenery to correspond with the baseboard below. This makes it seem as if Eliza is floating in a shallow box over a landscape of personal importance to her. A number of commentators on this work have described the artist’s presentation as “mysterious” and “almost psychological” in the rendering of a floating room. Suuporting this theory is the presence of a strip of brown paint along the bottom of the painting, which makes it appear that the "baseboard" was actually four sides of a tray in which Eliza sits (or hovers).

I think there is a far simpler explanation for what we’re seeing here. As we have seen in previous posts, there was a real passion for painted walls in nineteenth-century America, and many of those wall murals were fully realized landscapes in imitation of French scenic wallpaper. I think the artist of Eliza’s portrait recreated such a wall mural and simply avoided the difficult perspective challenge of turning the corner on the scenery.

An easy and effective solution to an artistic problem that the untrained artist couldn’t solve any other way. And a reminder that the ways we have been taught to “read” artworks in the twentieth century have very little bearing on how they were created in the century preceding it. It was the Victorian Age, after all, when the realm of the subconscious was buried deep beneath the hard soil of propriety.

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