"Art Notes," New York World, October 25, 1875
"The Arts," Appletons' Journal of Literature, Science, and Art, November 6, 1875, pp. 602-603
Lloyd Goodrich and Abigail Booth Gerdts, Record of Works by Winslow Homer, 1867 through 1876, vol. II, New York, 2005, no. 567, p. 359-60, illustrated
During and immediately following the Civil War, Winslow Homer became an established magazine illustrator and made his reputation as an artist through his oil paintings. By the early 1870s, Homer also turned his attention to painting in watercolor, focusing on smaller scale works of a variety of subjects. The depiction of solitary contemplative young women became a much explored and ongoing theme beginning in the 1870s and one unidentified woman in particular modeled for many of these works until about 1878.
Helen Cooper compares the figure in these watercolors to women found in popular contemporary novels: "delicate, young heroines in crinoline and innumerable flounces of white muslin... carry fans or lace parasols to prevent freckles and tan, and stand in intimate garden settings" (Winslow Homer Watercolors, p. 44). Portrait of a Lady and similar watercolors portraying these delicate, and often enigmatic, young women at leisure launched Homer into the mainstream of the mid-1870s New York art world.
Painted in 1875, Portrait of a Lady depicts a young woman in an elegant white dress, trimmed with a patterned detail, and accessorized with a black scarf at her neck, a dark belt at her waist and a black ribbon in her hair. This same figure and dress appear in a series of watercolors that Homer painted in 1875, believed to have been executed on his first trip to Prout's Neck, Maine. Several of these, such as Fiction (Detroit Institute of Arts) display the technical variety and free approach Homer sometimes experimented with in his watercolors. This "sketchy" treatment was often the focus of critical attention in Homer's work. When exhibited, critics praised the individuality of these watercolors, but often expressed dissatisfaction with their unfinished qualities.
In Portrait of a Lady, Homer created a dense, green background by layering transparent washes of pigment to achieve the dappled green foliage behind the figure. The garden's spatial parameters grow from a deep, almost black-green at the bottom right, flecked with light green leaves, to a lighter green touched by darker leaf-like forms at the top. The intense green of the background contrasts with the dress's whiteness, the folds of which are defined by grayish-blue shadows. The spot of red on her finger suggests that the woman has just pricked it on the rose branch that falls in front of her. In his depictions of young women, Homer often featured the figure looking away from the viewer, face in profile, body turned slightly away. Only rarely did he depict this particular model's full face, as seen in Young Girl at the Window (1875, New Britain Museum of American Art).
Homer is known to have used floral symbolism to convey specific meanings, which gained widespread interest in the Victorian era. Abigail Booth Gerdts has noted that contemporary critics who saw Portrait of a Lady described the roses as being white. She speculates, "It is possible Homer changed the roses' color, or that he had used white pigment which has oxidized to the color we now see" (Abigail Booth Gerdts and Lloyd Goodrich, Record of Works by Winslow Homer, vol. 2, p. 360). The rose has long been used as a symbol of love, with varying meaning attributed to the color. A white rose would have indicated "I am worthy of you," whereas a blush rose could have indicated "perfect happiness." Regardless of the color of this rose, Homer appears to be conveying a cautionary message regarding love with the prick of the thorn. Though still unexplained, scholars have speculated that the red haired model must have been important to Homer, given her repeated appearance in his work, and dramatic disappearance from Homer's oeuvre in 1878. Portrait of a Lady's connection to issues of love and courtship is enhanced when paired with Homer's Trysting Place (1875, Princeton University Art Museum), which features the same figure holding a fan at her face. She appears to be lost in thought, glancing over her shoulder, awaiting the arrival of her lover at their secret meeting place. With their far off gazes and serious expressions, many of these depictions of thoughtful young women have an air of loneliness about them. This loneliness may partially have been Homer's - he had difficulties in relationships and never married - however, his fascination with painting women stayed with him throughout his artistic career.
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