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Taking a closer look…

By August 21, 2017 Art, Color, Composition 6 Comments

I just came across this lovely painting, for the first time. It is The Homestead, by John Whorf (American, 1903-1959) and it is a watercolor done in about 1945.

Let’s look at it together, and see what we can see. After my very first glance (“what a beautiful old cape! Oh dear, abandoned…“) I notice that almost half of the painting, in the foreground, is taken up by the soft diagonal of the field. The black of the wellpump stands out from the tans and browns of the grasses. The pump draws my eye right to the house itself. In terms of color, the field has a bit of green and even some yellow in with the tans and browns.

Where does your eye travel when viewing the painting? I looked at the brighter colors of the field first, then the black pump led me to the green back door of the house’s ell, and the roofline. And then my eye goes to the hard shadow line across the house, and to the far door… My eye travelled back to the patch of black in the window just to the left of the white door – a broken window, I think, that adds to the abandoned feel of the house. And from the far door, I took in the boarded-up window on the far right.

It was only on the second looking that I really took in the angles of the roof, the two chimneys, and how the house is framed and softened at the top by the unseen tree’s branches.

Look at how the angle of the shadow falling across the house is as hard a line as the house itself. Look at the shadows from the tree on the top roof and far side of the house. Where is the sun coming from?

Did you notice that the diagonal of the hard shadow-line on the house is just the same as (parallel to) the diagonal of the left-most roofline? How do the different diagonals of the roof itself play off against the soft diagonal of the field?

The green bushes here and there in the field balance the greens of the branches overhead. And the field itself: it puts the house at a distance from us, doesn’t it?

Of course the shape of the house itself – the placement of the doors and windows, the rooflines and horizontal lines of the clapboards – is determined by the architecture of any good old cape. But the artist chose just that angle to view it from, with the sun and shadows falling at just that moment, when he contemplated his choices – his composition.

What is the focal point of the painting? I am not sure, and maybe it is different to different people. But I decided that for me, it was the white door – what I took to be the main door that would be used every day.

The whole abandoned look of the house brings to mind who lived there, why they left it, who went in and out of those doors a hundred times, a thousand times. And, at least for me, that is the emotional impact of the painting. I can so easily picture a woman coming out of that green door of the ell to pump water – for dyeing wool or yarn on the top of her old stove. Don’t you think there might have been a hooked rug in front of the stove?

Each art medium has its own look. Watercolor allows that very softness of color, and the wonderful almost blurry top edge of the field grasses, allowing you to feel you are looking right through the grass where it overlaps the house’s foundation. You could dye wool to get the different colors of the field, but it would be beyond me how to create that soft edge where field and house meet.

John Whorf’s The Homestead (August), c.1945 is being sold by Childs Gallery, Boston, MA for $8,500, and they are online at childsgallery.com.

The Gallery description of the painting reads “John Whorf was one of the most accomplished American watercolorists. In this watercolor he treats a Cape Cod house… with a style and technique reminiscent of two of his favorite artists, John Singer Sargent and Frank W. Benson.”

Whorf was born in Winthrop, MA, and died in Provincetown. I did not find much biographical information on him, but it is clear, after searching, that many galleries actively are interested in finding works by him. And a book has just been published about him, John Whorf Rediscovered, available from AFA Publishing. You can see a few more of his paintings here, all lovely.

Today, don’t look at the eclipse without special precautions, so you can continue to look, and then look again, at everything else.

6 Comments

  • Ivi says:

    Hi Mary Jane, thanks for this well chosen painting and analysis. My first thought was “a new-found Sargent!” My eye immediately went to the diagonal shadow and registered how hard it is. I appreciate your observations and agree totally about the difference between water colors and rug hooking. I think it is good I didn’t take up water colors as I would drive myself truly batty with all that is possible. We’ve just returned from a weekend of house looking and placement and setting make all the difference.
    Have a good eclipse!

    • mjanep says:

      Ivi, where I lived for a few years in England, there was a nice art group in my village – and they all did watercolors. I really tried for about a year, then went back to rughooking! I couldn’t believe how many women in this one, random English village, were able to do great, really impressive watercolors. I think they teach it to children there in school art.

  • Sylvia Doiron says:

    Enjoyed your analysis of this painting. I won’t look at paintings in the same way again. Thank you.

  • Jeni says:

    Lovely watercolor. I’m also amazed when you point out something, that I merely passed over without really seeing. Thanks, Mary Jane.

  • Mary Miller says:

    Mary Jane. This type of writing would be perfect for an article in Rug Hooking Magazine. It is really an informative article and it really makes you think. What a lovely way to learnšŸ¤—

  • Ivi says:

    Mary’s right Mary Jane. You write so well and are a thoughtful observer and researcher.

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