From Joe Trimmer's "Postcards: Inside/Out"

The questions below are taken from an article published in ARTiculating. The student responses to the questions were written by Professor Trimmer's student Kathy Conrow about Winslow Homer's painting The Blue Boy (1873), which is not the one below, but one rather like it. Conrow wrote her responses in the first person, as if the painting was speaking.

A Basket of Clams, 1873
Winslow Homer, A Basket of Clams, 1873, Metropolitan Museum of Art

What does the spectator think as he or she observes the painting? Is that important? Why?

I hate Mondays. The museum is always closed. The lights are dimmed, the doors are locked and there's a heavy silence in the halls. No slamming doors, no footsteps, no hushed voices arguing about the meaning of art or whether it's time for lunch. It's just [paintings], hanging in darkness. Some don't mind this time alone, a break from pointing fingers and quizzical stares. But I miss the people. I like to eavesdrop when they talk about what they think we see at the bottom of the hill. I like to watch them squint as they move closer to look at my feet or the birds in the sky.

What do we know about this painter? What else did he paint? What prompted him to paint this painting? Are these models taken from life? How long did they have to pose? What did the painterís face look like as he studied the models? What do you think the models thought of the painting when it was finished?

I was surprised when I saw Mr. Homer trudging up the hill with his wooden case and thick tablet. I'd seen him by the boatyards earlier in the week when he sketched Billy and his friend as they stared at the boats. But why did he want to make a picture in the middle of a field? There were no tall ships of old docks. Just Phinny, me, and the cows. Mr. Homer said he'd like to paint us anyway, if we didn't mind, and started unpacking his brushes and examining his pencils. Once he arranged his materials, he arranged us. . . . 

Whatís the size of this painting? Does the artist use any special techniques? What materials did the artist use to create the painting? What are some of the distinctive features that art lovers have admired over the years? What has been debated about this painting? 
Scattered flecks of gauche grasses and field flowers, the clean white-paper shirts of meditative children, the lifted-out lights of early summer skies---these are some of the details of sun-drenched days in Gloucester, Massachusetts that Winslow Homer captured in his first finished watercolor paintings. Before his visit to the old fishing town, Homer's watercolors might be described as colored wash drawings" (Cooper, 20). But his experiment in the summer in 1873 enabled him to use the medium in a new and innovative way, establishing him, eventually, as "its greatest master in the history of American art" (Cikovsky, 53). 

The characteristics of watercolor pigments and the qualities of his subject matter also played a part in Homer's decision [to use them]. Every paint medium has unique properties that cause it to behave in certain ways and allow it to be manipulated to achieve different effects. 

The portability of watercolor also made it ideal for Homer's subject and setting. There was no cumbersome easel, bulky canvas, or cans of turpentine to haul around.

Read some history about the time that the painting was created. Who were other painters of that time? 

How is this painter compared to his contemporaries?

Who owned the painting? Why did these owners purchase the painting? Where was the painting hung? What is the highest price ever paid for this painting? Where is the painting now? What is near it in its area of display (if it is in a gallery or museum)?
[Winslow Homer's hand] left the inscription "to M. F." next to his name, indicating that he wished to share his painting with another. Whether this mark was intended as a dedication or to indicate a future gift is unclear, but if we assume M. F. was Mattie French Homer, Winslow's sister-in-law, then the inscription eventually would come to mean both. 

When Mattie died in 1937, another member of the Homer family was able to call The Blue Boy "my painting." Mrs. Arthur P. Homer (Anna), Winslow's niece-in-law, lived next door to Mattie when she was in West Townsend. 

[Eventually the painting made its way to an art dealer in New York City, where Elisabeth Ball purchased it for $1,500.] According to a list made in her own hand, Elisabeth Ball hung The Blue Boy in "My Bedroom," along with a T. C. Steele oil painting of peonies, a pair of pastel portraits by T. W. Dewing, and at least two other watercolors . . . 

Can anyone appreciate this painting, or do you need to know too many things to make sense of it?
The Blue Boy still hangs on the second floor of the [Ball State University Museum of Art]. Beneath it hangs Eakins' work mentioned in McIntyre's letter. Every day many people stroll up to the painting, stop and look. Like Mattie and Elisabeth, many of these people like to think of it as "my painting."
I've become one of those people. Digging into its history, its artist, and its owners, I feel like I've developed my own special claim on The Blue Boy. [W]henever I see that watercolor--on the wall of the museum, on the page of a book, or the face of a postcard, I say that's "my painting."

from Trimmer, Joseph. "Postcards: Inside/Out." ARTiculating: Teaching Writing in a Visual World. Ed. Pamela Childers, Eric Hobson, Joan Mullin. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Heinemann, 1998.

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