Painted as a companion to Lady Seated at a Work Table [1980.449], this composition features a domestic interior in the evening. Hewins depicted the scene in jeweled tones with smooth layers of paint, creating a matte effect with little visible brushwork. The low light from the fireplace and the...
Painted as a companion to Lady Seated at a Work Table [1980.449], this composition features a domestic interior in the evening. Hewins depicted the scene in jeweled tones with smooth layers of paint, creating a matte effect with little visible brushwork. The low light from the fireplace and the Argand chandelier cast an eerie glow across the scene. A young lady clad in a fashionable white dress sits with her back to the viewer and plays the piano, likely a Boston-made Chickering instrument. The identity of the sitter is unknown. A similar work in the collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, is inscribed “Home/1836/A. Hewins,” leading some to believe that these compositions are renderings of Hewins’s own home in Boston and, perhaps, his family members. However, this young woman is not likely to be the artist’s wife Elizabeth, who would have been 38 in 1836, nor could it be his eldest daughter Elizabeth, born in 1824. Like Lady Seated at a Work Table, this painting includes a riotous volcanic landscape with red lava fields and pinkened skies that correspond to the red coals glowing in the fireplace grate. The drama of this small scene is echoed in the larger composition, for this young girl is not alone. Even though the French mantle clock reads ten after ten o’clock in the evening, a well-dressed gentleman eavesdrops from the shadows of the doorway. His barely discernable presence combines with the eerie interior lighting and primordial landscape to heighten the uncanny nature of the scene. The girl has her back to the viewer, allowing the sheet music she plays to be seen. Charles E. Horn composed the popular “I Know a Bank Whereon the Wild Thyme Grows” for a revival of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. The piece was written as a vocal duet, but the gentleman in the doorway does not appear to be singing; instead, he listens attentively to the piano melody. This composition is almost identical to three others in the collections of the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut; the Portland Museum of Art, Maine; and a private collection. The MFA’s painting differs only in the layered sleeves of the sitter’s dress, the detail of the lacy porcelain basket on the mantel and the time on the clock—which changes in each version. Even with many unanswered questions about the identity of the sitter and location of the room, this enigmatic painting remains a fascinating glimpse into mid-1830s Boston taste and home decoration. Naomi H. Slipp
Reverse: A HEWINS/42[ ]377/8 x 14 3/4
The artist; with Vose Galleries, Boston; to MFA, 1980, purchase.
A. Shuman Collection—Abraham Shuman Fund