Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Student Reflections on the Collection: Home by the Sea, Part 1

This academic year, the Addison education department has been fortunate to host three Phillips Academy students as they complete their Work Duty assignments. This past term, we asked the students to choose a work of art from the Addison’s permanent collection and to reflect on its personal and academic significance to the student. Each student interpreted this assignment differently and we are excited to present the first part of the second essay in the series by Lauren Kim, Class of 2013.

Thomas Worthington Whittredge’s 1872 painting, Home by the Sea, tells a story that dissects the different paths we go through during life—the different terrains and surroundings that we move through to get to a destination that we choose in order to live out our lives to a fulfilling end. This painting has four levels of scenery: the farmhouse, the plains, the sea, and the sky. Each component adds a level of depth to the piece that engages me and challenges me to make my own connections to the painting. Not only are these different levels physically represented in the painting, but I also found the elements to symbolize greater themes in one’s personal journey.

Thomas Worthington Whittredge, Home by the Sea, 1872
In the foreground, a woman tends to her animals on the setting of a small homestead. The woman is calm, going through the pleasant routine of feeding the animals. The cozy, homey scene with the woman and her animals is an elegant touch of detail in Home by the Sea. The bright color of the woman’s clothing, the small flowers that adorn the surrounding bushes, the birds on the roof and around the fenced area bring brightness to the mostly green, golden yellow, and brown color palette of the farmhouse setting. Even though this woman and I have no relation, as I thought more about what the farmhouse and the woman’s presence may represent, I gravitated toward the idea of home because of the quaint and comfortable feel of the woman’s scene. I automatically recognized that this woman belonged to this scene: her home shaped her, as she had also shaped the home. For me, instead of being confined to describing just a house, the term home is a collection of physical, mental, and emotional memories from the place and the people that have shaped my foundation as a being. I interpreted the woman in the painting to have been the homemaker of this small farm. Being outside, tending to the animals suggests that she contributes to the household and may be the maternal figure of this family. Just like me, this woman has her own home—a place to call her own, a place as familiar as the back of her hand.

The author's home in Bannockburn, Illinois
During the Fall term of Senior year—a period of time that’s notorious for being the toughest part of a Phillips Academy career, filled with vast mountains of homework, college applications to be written, and non-academic responsibilities to be taken care of—I often reminisce about my home, and nostalgia settles in as I remember easier times: the good ol’ days. I can talk for hours on end about the memories I’ve collected as a kid born and raised in Bannockburn, a small village of the North Shore region of Chicago. Although my house looks like just another plain brick house in Midwestern suburbia, to me, my house feels like no other place in this world, and I grew up in the company of a family that’s one of a kind. From the kitchen that was ruled by my mother’s culinary prowess to the high ceilings in the living room that we added on during the first grade. In my mind, there are specific experiences and events pocketed in each aspect of my house, whether inside or out. The dining room reminds me of family Thanksgiving dinners that, in addition to the traditional American holiday menu, always featured a pot of rice and a bowl of kimchi. The tennis court that had a basketball hoop in our backyard reminds me of the glowing evenings when my dad would come home from work and use the short time of sunlight left to teach my sister how to play basketball, while I stood aside, watching them in admiration. I would walk around the tennis court, while I observed my sister trying to copy my dad’s shots and heard my dad’s strong but warm voice instructing her. Looking back on evenings like these, I laugh a little, remembering being grumpy because I was hungry and eagerly waiting for my mom to call us in for dinner. As these moments play in my head, I realize how far I am from these memories of home and how these special capsules of time are now only behind me; they are my past. I can remember the special moments, but I will never experience them in the exact same way.

A native of Springfield, Ohio, Whittredge was a self-taught painter. His journey of self-discovery and global exploration created an admiration for his home. Originally a house painter, Whittredge traveled to Europe in 1849 with a desire to become a better painter and to learn the European painting traditions. He combined his passion for art with his longing to experience different cultures. Whittredge was not alone. He was part of a movement of American painters who traveled and studied throughout Europe for cultural immersion during the 18th and 19th centuries. Whittredge’s extensive travels also include three trips to the American West in 1866, 1870, and 1871. As a result of the combination of international influence and his personal journey, he established and developed his special identity as a landscape painter, becoming known for painting pastoral scenes with wide, open spaces and natural light. After Whittredge went out into the world and soaked himself in other cultures that helped further shape his identity as a painter and an individual, he created Home by the Sea, the symbolism of which reminds me of his journey and a reminiscence of home.

“I think I can say that I was not the first or by any means the only painter of our country who has returned from a long visit abroad and not encountered the same difficulties in tackling home subjects.” Whittredge knew that his experiences and expanded knowledge from Europe changed him and his identity as a painter. Perhaps he felt a difficulty in painting home subjects because he felt that his depiction would be tainted by European influence instead of staying true to his original view of home prior to his travels. The different scenes within Whittredge’s painting reflect his mindfulness of the extended idea of home and how thoughts similar to the ones that run through my mind right now could have confronted him when he was painting.

For more on Whittredge and his work, see Faxon, Susan C., Avis Berman, and Jock Reynolds. Addison Gallery of American Art: 65 Years : A Selective Catalogue. Andover, MA: Addison Gallery of American Art, 1996; and Point Of View: Landscapes From The Addison Collection. Andover, MA: Addison Gallery  of American Art, 1992.

Part 2 of this essay will appear next week.