By John Boudreau, Communications Intern
As a former librarian, Lydia Ross was particularly interested in Homer’s illustrations for James Russell Lowell’s 1874 poem The Courtin’. “These silhouettes are unique in the exhibit,” she said, “which is one of the reasons why I like them.”
For Lydia, another part of the silhouette’s appeal lies in their intricacy. “ I just think they’re really beautiful,” she said. “Think how hard it would be to do those shoelaces!” Despite their precision, the advantage of the silhouettes is that they’re not overly detailed. “You understand instantly what’s going on,” Lydia said, “rather than studying all the details, like in [Homer’s] etchings.”
Lydia also appreciated Homer’s ability to convey the poem’s setting in a very subtle way. While the figures themselves are intentionally general, she feels that the accessories in the illustrations help establish the poem’s setting. “The clothing, the apple she’s peeling, the Windsor chair—it’s very New England-y,” she said.
But the most interesting element of these pieces for Lydia is the context in which they were produced. According to Lydia, Homer, a life-long bachelor, was likely smitten by Helena DeKay, a young artist who served as Homer’s model in the 1870s—see Portrait of Helena DeKay (1871)—before marrying another man. Although there’s little evidence to support it, it’s possible that DeKay served as a model for these illustrations as well. Through this lens, the silhouettes take on a whole new meaning. “I think he really loved her,” Lydia said. “The fact that he never got married but still made this kind of picture is another reason why I like them so much.”
For more on the possible relationship between Homer and DeKay, check out this article from Smithsonian Magazine.
Lydia Ross is a research analyst at the Clark. A trained librarian, she has worked in the past for literacy foundations and as a research librarian for consulting firms. She has been at the Clark since June of 2012.