A Time to Pause:
Saying Goodbye, Temporarily, to Some Favored Treasures
B. Scott Crawford
While Gathering in the Galleries focuses on major works of art found in museums all over the world, it should not be forgotten that some great works of art by major figures in art history rest locally in the various museums throughout the Roanoke Valley. Due to its size, not only in physical space but also in budget, the Taubman Museum of Art has received arguably the most attention over the past three years. Most recently, the museum has decided to move works from its permanent collection in one of its galleries into the vault. This decision was made so that the museum could prepare for a temporary exhibition featuring sketches from the American Civil War (see http://taubmanmuseum.com/main/exhibitions/civil - war-drawings-becker-collection). In essence, this permanent gallery has, at least temporarily, become a gallery for traveling exhibitions. Having seen the upcoming exhibition at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts last spring, I can state it is fantastic and worth checking out. However, I believe that a pause is in order to reflect upon the importance of the works from the American collection that are now no longer visible to the public, at least temporarily. All but one of the works that had been in the gallery were part of a larger collection Peggy Macdowell Thomas donated to the museum. obtaining this collection was a major coup on the part of the museum. The collection was so important that even the Philadelphia Museum of Art had expressed interest in obtaining the works and related material; in the end, a small, local museum won out! With that acquisition the Museum of Western Virginia, eventually to become the Taubman Museum of Art, morphed into a fairly significant institution. Following the acquisition, the great generosity of Heywood Fralin became evident as he began to direct funds toward the museum so it could build its American collection and successfully set the Macdowell Thomas Collection within a larger art historical context. It soon became evident that the Art Museum of Western Virginia needed a new space – and thus began the project that culminated with the building and opening of the Taubman Museum of Art. One work from the collection that has recently been moved into the vault stands out. Susan Eakins’ Portrait of Mary and Elizabeth Macdowell is one of the “must sees” from the collection that Roanoke should be proud to have in its possession.
The portrait, which Susan painted in 1879 while she was a student of Thomas
Eakins but before she was his wife, depicts Susan’s two sisters occupied in leisurely activities. Mary Macdowell sits in a relaxed manner, apparently deep in thought as she looks away from the reading material on her lap, while Elizabeth Macdowell concentrates on her stitching. Elizabeth is working on a crazy quilt, which became a fad in America during the 1880s, just after the painting was completed. However, Americans were introduced to crazy quilts three years earlier during the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, where the Macdowells lived. It was during the Exposition that a Japanese art exhibition inspired quilt makers to embrace asymmetrical patterns in their work. Shortly thereafter, articles related to crazy quilts began to appear in various women’s journals and magazines. Crazy quilts involve patching together irregular pieces of fabric, which can be seen in the colors and patterns of the quilts on the chair and on Elizabeth’s lap in the painting. Below is a crazy quilt from ca. 1880; note the similarities between this quilt and the two depicted in the painting.
While Elizabeth intently focuses on her work, Mary pauses from her reading. On her lap is what appears to be a magazine. The way in which the object folds suggest that this is not a book but is a periodical of some type. A host of women’s magazines and journals were available for women to read during this period, so it is impossible, based on the painting alone, to determine which magazine is represented in the work. The pictures depicted in the periodical are not clear, so it is also impossible to identify on what topic Mary is reading. With articles appearing about crazy quilts in such magazines during the period, possibly both women are engaged in a shared activity: Elizabeth quilts a crazy quilt while Mary reads about crazy quilts. We will
never know for sure.
With Mary reading and Elizabeth quilting, the painting begins to reflect middle class values and 19th century leisure activities. With the reading material being a magazine, the article is, whether related to crazy quilting or not, in all likelihood tied to domestic matters such as sewing, stitching, quilting, and other topics related to the home. Periodicals women read during the period were filled with topics related to the home and the private, or women’s, sphere the Victorian Era witnessed through the Cult of Domesticity. For example, one popular women’s magazine throughout most of the 19th century was Godey’s Lady Book and Magazine. Articles
from this periodical include:
“Beaded Lace,” October, 1879
“Crochet and Tattered Lace,” July, 1874
“Handkerchief Border,” August, 1873
“The Sphere of Women,” March, 1850
Mary’s reclined posture and her reading relatively light material, suggest a leisurely scene. Similarly, Elizabeth’s working on a crazy quilt, which women typically completed during their spare time, reflects an activity of leisure. Crazy quilts tended to not have a practical purpose but were used as a throw to decorate rooms. Thus during the period this was more of a recreation activity than a chore required to meet basic household needs. Another interesting element is found in the background of the painting where we
find a houseplant. Victorian architecture, with larger windows than past homes, allowed more natural light into homes and helped middle class households’ attain their desire to bring nature directly into their living spaces. This was a relatively new phenomenon as colonial homes tended not to allow for indoor plants to survive. With the rise of larger cities in the 19th century, coinciding with industrialization, Americans living in urban areas sought ways to stay in touch with nature. The public park and public cemetery movements in cities during the first half of the 19th century reflect this desire, as did late 19th century Americans’ desire to acquire houseplants. Within this painting, Susan puts forth a reflection of this larger urban movement as she includes a houseplant behind Mary.
While the painting reflects several 19th century, middle class ideals about
domesticity and leisure, there is one final element that makes this painting important. When Susan Macdowell painted this piece, she was a student of Thomas Eakins. Stylistically, the work reflects his instruction and possible influence. For example, the emphasis on realism, the use of darker colors, and the light source coming from the viewer’s left are elements found in many of Eakins’ works. Most importantly is the way Susan treats Mary. Thomas Eakins is known for his famous “Eakins Gaze.” In many of his masterpieces he depicts the subject engaged in an activity with which the subject is associated. Eakins tends to captures the subject in deep thought, gazing away from the matter at hand. It is a pause that defines many of his works. For example, in Eakins’ The Gross Clinic he depicts Dr. Gross just after he has made an incision in the patient. Dr. Gross now pauses, scalpel
in hand, blood dripping from hand and scalpel, as he stares off into space, possibly contemplating on what he is about to explain to his students. Interestingly, it was after Susan saw The Gross Clinic that she decided to become Eakins’ student; the painting directly affected her.
Susan Macdowell uses an effect reminiscent of the Eakins Gaze in the way she portrays Mary. Mary has been leisurely reading a women’s magazine. Unlike Elizabeth, who is engaging her work, Mary pauses; she gazes toward Elizabeth’s hands and is deep in thought. Susan beautifully reflects the Eakins Gaze as she captures Mary at this moment in time, a moment that is surely fleeting and marks the moment before she is possibly going to offer Elizabeth advice about her work, begin a conversation, or return to her reading. Here is a composite of several examples of the Eakins Gaze from paintings by Thomas Eakins surrounding Susan’s depiction of Mary:
Susan Macdowell’s portrait of her two sisters is a treasure; and the other pieces now in the vault are wonderful as well. While the various sketches from the Civil War that will hang in their places should drive people into the museum, as I sincerely hope they will do, I wish that Mary and Elizabeth will not be gone for too long. I guess in the meantime we can all pause, reflect on the importance of the Peggy Thomas Macdowell Collection, and see how the museum handles the permanent collection in the future.