Between 1830 and 1880, more than fifty-eight American paintings were exhibited with the word “picnic” in their titles, attesting to the popularity of this outdoor activity and to its portrayal by artists in the United States. Picnicking was a celebration of nature intensified by the...
Between 1830 and 1880, more than fifty-eight American paintings were exhibited with the word “picnic” in their titles, attesting to the popularity of this outdoor activity and to its portrayal by artists in the United States. Picnicking was a celebration of nature intensified by the realization that the wilderness was fast disappearing; it was a nostalgic escape from an increasingly industrialized life. Since it frequently involved physical activity, picnicking was also seen as a healthful pastime. Victorian social strictures were often eased during these outings, and the resulting casual atmosphere was another attraction. In A Pic Nick in the Woods of New England, Jerome Thompson depicts the sensuousness and relaxation of decorum that were generally characteristic of American picnics at mid-century. Two tables are laden with food, including a ham, a fowl, shellfish, baked beans, pie, and bread. Numerous jugs and bottles of wine are in evidence. Thompson portrayed some thirty figures of all ages in the scene, but the activities of the women are emphasized by virtue of their placement and actions and the bright colors of their costumes. Most of the young people are involved with courting and flirting. On the left is a demure young lady with a slight smile, sitting with a young man who is touching her shoulder, an act that would be inappropriately intimate under normal social situations. Two other couples are flirting: in the foreground, the woman in white, wearing a man’s hat, tickles the fiddler with a twig, and behind her, a couple has exchanged headgear. The man has donned the woman’s bonnet, and she sports his hat while her friend attempts to decorate it with a feather. A little girl and boy sit on the ground by the flutist, probably their father, and the girl reaches to pet the dog held in the boy’s arms. An older woman with a frilly bonnet bouncing a toddler on her knee and a mature man smoking his pipe both smile indulgently at the frivolous behavior. Behind this older couple, another man with a black hat grins at the flirting couples as he cradles a bottle of wine. To the left, a man, whose cap indicates that he may be a coach driver, sports an apron and retrieves a bottle of wine from a basket. One woman toasts another in the background with her wine glass—a gesture more usually associated with male behavior. Elsewhere children enjoy the feast while women serve the food. The picnic is set in a grove of trees, by either a large lake or, more likely, the ocean. Since the fireplace to the left seems to be a permanent structure, this may be an established picnic grove, often used for the purpose. The early history of A Pic Nick in the Woods of New England is unknown.The painting appeared on the art market about 1940, attributed to Maine artist Jeremiah Hardy [47.1146] based on a torn label that read:“A Pic Nick in the Woods/of New England/by Jer.” In 1952, art historian Barbara N. Parker changed the attribution of the painting, by then in the MFA’s collection, to Jerome Thompson based on the similarity of its style and subject matter to The “Pick Nick” near Mount Mansfield, Vermont” (1857, now known as Recreation, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco), which was attributed to Jerome Thompson. Thompson had begun his career as a portraitist; he painted at least one urban genre scene, The Peep Show [48.481], in 1851, and he studied in England from 1852 to 1854. The sentimental, narrative paintings and detailed Pre-Raphaelite canvases Thompson saw in England seem to have influenced his work after he returned to America. The meticulous depictions of the wildflowers and other plants in the foreground of A Pic Nick in the Woods of New England recall similarly specific renderings in the work of many Pre-Raphaelite painters, such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Bocca Baciata (Lips That Have Been Kissed) [1980.261]. Thompson became known in the 1850s as a specialist in picnicking and harvesting scenes, which combined landscape and genre elements. Henry T. Tuckerman in his 1867 Book of the Artists described him as “chiefly known by his rustic scenes, half landscape and half rural labors or sport.”  In addition to the MFA’s painting and San Francisco’s Recreation, Thompson rendered other picnic scenes. In 1850, he had exhibited The Pick Nick (location unknown) at the National Academy of Design and in 1851, at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He painted The Belated Party on Mansfield Mountain (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) in 1858. A Pic-Nic, Lake Bombazine, in Vermont (then in the Henry Sheldon Collection, location now unknown) was shown at the Brooklyn Art Association in 1872. Thompson received glowing notices from contemporary critics: [Block quote] No living artist . . . catches the lights and shades of American life and humor; and consequently, none is more truly popular. With the true hand of the master, and a taste skilled and trained by much study, he adds that intangible faculty of seizing the most picturesque view of things, and succeeds in producing pictures which literally talk with reminiscences and life. Born and bred on a New-England farm, he has pierced to the very spirit of country realities. [/Block quote] While no contemporary mention of the MFA’s painting has yet been located, A Pic Nick in the Woods of New England was certainly one of Thompson’s most important works. It is one of his three largest known paintings, together with San Francisco’s Recreation and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s The Belated Party on Mansfield Mountain. Each of the three has a different ambiance. In Recreation, the mood is quiet and comfortable, and nature is an oasis. The atmosphere in The Belated Party on Mansfield Mountainis more threatening: if the party does not descend soon, they will be endangered, left to make their way down the mountain in darkness. A Pic Nick in the Woods of New England is the most raucous of the three paintings, with a lessening of social restraints and a relaxation of normal gender roles. A recent sociological study, which illustrates this painting on its cover, suggests that in addition to the private realm of women and the public one of men, there was a third dimension in antebellum New England—a social sphere where working people crossed ideological gender boundaries. Contemporary writers merely emphasized the freedom implicit in picnicking, as Daphne Dale wrote in Our Manners and Social Customs: A Practical Guide to Deportment, Easy Manners, and Social Etiquette in 1891: “Even the rigidest disciplinarian will romp a little when there is green grass under foot and a blue sky overhead, and a merry company all around and then who shall say what glances may be exchanged, what tender sighs may be breathed, what ardent words and soft responses may be spoken under the inspiration of such an hour and amid such scenes?” Notes 1. Angela L. Miller, “Nature’s Transformations: The Meaning of the Picnic Theme in Nineteenth-Century American Art,” Winterthur Portfolio 24, no. 2/3 (Summer–Autumn 1989): 113. 2. Mary Ellen W. Hern, “Picnicking in the Northeastern United States, 1840–1900,” Winterthur Portfolio 24, no. 2/3 (Summer–Autumn 1989): 146. 3. Henry T. Tuckerman, Book of the Artists: American Artist Life, Comprising Biographical and Critical Sketches of American Artists; Preceded by an Historical Account of the Rise and Progress of Art in America (New York: G. P. Putnam and Son, 1867), 490. 4. Lee M. Edwards, “The Life and Career of Jerome Thompson,” American Art Journal 14, no. 4 (Autumn 1982): 12. 5. “Jerome B. Thompson,”Cosmopolitan Art Journal 1, no. 4(June 1857): 127. 6. Karen V. Hansen, A Very Social Time: Crafting Community in Antebellum New England (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994). 7. Dale quoted in Hern, “Picnicking in the Northeastern United States, 1840–1900,” 151–52. Janet L. Comey
About 1855, the artist; 1940s, private collection, Red Bank, N.J.; 1942, purchased by Victor Spark, New York; 1946, with John Mitchell, New York; 1946, to Maxim Karolik, Newport, R.I.; 1946, gift of Maxim Karolik to the MFA. (Accession Date: September 12, 1946)
Gift of Maxim Karolik for the M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Paintings, 1815–1865