This illustration by Walter Beach Humphrey was at auction a few years ago as part of the dispersal of the estate of illustration collector and dealer Charles Martignette. Since there is no date information with this painting we need to use the image itself to help us place it in time.
The illustration is of a young woman in the midst of housecleaning. On the floor in the foreground are her tools: dustpan, a hand brush, and her cleaning rag. Just behind the cleaning supplies, the woman sits on her knees with her silk stocking-covered legs tucked under her. She wears a matching housedress and cleaning cap: the material is a print of large cabbage roses on a dark blue background with the pink tone of the roses echoed in the dress’s trim at the sleeve, neck, and at the front edge of the cap. The dress and trim appear to be of a shinny material perhaps polished cotton or even silk. The woman’s dark hair is cut in a bob and she wears make-up and pink nail polish. Surprisingly her shoes are black leather pumps sporting an inch-plus heel. Behind the woman is a wood book case with a few books still on the shelves. On the top of the book shelf are a piece of blue fabric edged in bright yellow and a squat pot which might be made of clay or could be a piece of red Chinese lacquer ware. The rest of the shelf’s books are piled on the floor around the woman’s knees. In her hands she holds a book she is paging through, titled Love Songs.
C. Coles Phillips created a similar illustration for a June 1911 issue of the weekly humor magazine Life devoted to books. His lady of the house is dressed very simply, by comparison to Humphrey’s, and has her hair covered with a simple wrap of a white cotton (?) towel.
C. Coles Phillips (1880-1927)
The Lure of Books, 1911
Cover illustration for Life (June 8, 1911) Book Number
The woman’s bobbed hair and the knee-length hem of her dress date Walter Beach Humphrey’s illustration to sometime in the 1920s. She looks rather similar to the artist’s Liberty magazine’s cover image of a woman just back from Palm Beach (see below). Notice how wonderfully Humphrey rendered the materials (silk, satin, fur, and metallic fabric) in this illustration. The fact that the beautiful woman in Memories wears silk stockings and heeled pumps while she is cleaning is a bit disconcerting, but in any case, her attire reflects women’s clothing of the 1920s.
Walter Beach Humphrey (1892-1966)
Back from Palm Beach, 1925
Cover illustration for Liberty magazine (March 14, 1925)
I am intrigued by the gold edged blue cloth that sits on top of the book shelf and under the pot. It is clear from the illustration’s title, Memories, that there is a nostalgic element to the image. This is further indicated by the title of the book the woman leafs through, Love Songs. Perhaps she is pining for a love from an earlier time. Since the gold edged blue cloth on top of shelf is not a military service banner, it might be a souvenir from a college boy. Buff and Blue are the official colors of George Washington University; Blue and Maize are the colors of the University of Michigan; and Blue and Buff for the University of Delaware. Blue and Gold are the school colors of the University of Akron; Allegheny College; Allen University; the American Baptist College; Andrews University; Angelo State University; Antioch College (until 2009); Aquinas College; and Augustana College. This extended list was constructed after searching out only the schools that begin with and A.*
With the few clues in this illustration, I would suggest that this elegant young woman in the middle of house cleaning, is reminiscing about an earlier love. The book of Love Songs she reads so intently may even have been a courting gift from that young man suggested by the cloth.
* Colors of the Infantry Continental Army 1779-1783 were buff and blue, consequentlyDelaware’s colors are colonial blue and buff, the colors on the uniform of General George Washington when he was commander of the armies. Blue and Gold are the state colors of Arizona as of 1915, California as of 1951 (but first used by the University of California, Berkeley in 1875),Oregon as of 1959, and West Virginia (old gold and blue) as of 1963. And Boston’s city flag colors are continental blue and continental buff.
January 24, 2013
By Joyce K. Schiller, Curator, Rockwell Center for American Visual Studies, Norman Rockwell Museum