Amasa Hewins, a Boston portrait painter, miniaturist, and importer of Italian art, created Lady Seated at a Work Table to hang as a pendant to Lady Seated at a Piano [1980.450]. The painting is undated, but it is one of four almost-identical pairs by Hewins, two of which are inscribed 1836 and...
Amasa Hewins, a Boston portrait painter, miniaturist, and importer of Italian art, created Lady Seated at a Work Table to hang as a pendant to Lady Seated at a Piano [1980.450]. The painting is undated, but it is one of four almost-identical pairs by Hewins, two of which are inscribed 1836 and 1837 (the three other pairs are in the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut; the Portland Museum of Art, Maine; and a private collection). The sitter’s dress—a black, frilled, gigot-sleeved gown with a white lace pelerine collar fastened over her shoulders—and her hairstyle corroborate the date, as both are common fashions of the mid-1830s. This painting may have been displayed at the Boston Athenaeum in 1835 as Study—Lady and Guitar, or at the National Academy of Design in 1837 as one of two compositions entitled Interior of a Room. The painting depicts a scene of domestic tranquility: a middle-class interior strewn with the trappings of a lady’s daily activities. A white lace bonnet with trailing pink ribbons has been tossed onto a machine-woven wall-to-wall carpet, implying a recent walk outdoors, and a Spanish guitar has been or will be played. Such guitars, very similar to instruments made by Austrian Johan Georg Stauffer, were favored parlor instruments for female amateur musicians during this period. Rocking chairs were also frequently aligned with femininity, since they were intended for the dainty or infirm and were often upholstered for added comfort. This chair resembles rockers sold by John Hancock of Philadelphia, whose brother also made chairs in Boston. Hewins depicts his model in front of a window looking onto a dynamic maritime vista; she pauses while writing, lifting her eyes toward the viewer. This quiet scene, with its references to more vigorous pursuits, is disrupted by the disquieting perspectival angles of the room and its furnishings, as well as by the dramatic landscape that hangs above the figure and dominates the upper register of the work. This large rectangular painting within a painting depicts a volcanic eruption, replete with billowing ash clouds and bright red tracts of flowing lava. During the 1830s, volcanoes were popular images in the American imagination, but Hewins also may have had personal reasons for including it. A friend of Thomas Cole [1989.229], Francis Alexander [62.257], Horatio Greenough [1973.601], Hiram Powers [21.107], and Samuel F. B. Morse [48.455], Hewins was a lover of Italy and traveled with these artists throughout the peninsula on three separate occasions. Hewins is known to have witnessed a volcanic eruption himself in May of 1832 while travelling with Cole and Alexander. A newspaper article of 1848 claims that within Hewins’s three-mile-long (4.8-kilometer-long) painting Grand Classical Panorama of the Mediterranean, the artist represented Vesuvius from his own experience: [Block quote] It is not generally known that this particular view is illustrative of the eruption in 1832, when Mr. Hewins, the artist, was at Naples . . . this eruption is recorded to have been among the most beautiful ever seen, on account of the redness of the lava and flames imparted to the atmosphere and everything in the vicinity. [/Block quote] This description, particularly in its evocation of the redness of the lava, corresponds to the landscape painting above the seated woman in Hewins’s early composition. By placing this scene of earthly destruction within his vision of a tranquil Boston parlor, Hewins neatly contrasts violence with peace, outdoors with indoors, action with contemplation. Notes 1. “Striking View of Vesuvius,” The Boston Daily Atlas, July 3, 1848, issue 2, col. C. Naomi H. Slipp
Reverse: A HEWINS 426376/8 x 14 3/4
The artist; with Vose Galleries, Boston; to MFA, 1980, anonymous gift.