Wednesday, October 26, 2011


(Chloe And Sam, Thomas Hovenden, 1882, Amon Carter Museum of Western Art, Fort Worth, Texas)

Little did I expect to find two new friends as I ambled into a brightly lit gallery at the Amon Carter Museum.

But find them I did.

I felt honored to be invited into their lives if only for a few hallowed moments.


Chloe and Sam are two of the most elegant human beings I have seen on canvas or in any other place for that matter.

Each of these people exude a dignified richness of grace.

In addition to that, American painter Thomas Hovenden has blessed them with a restrained and tasteful simplicity.

Chloe and Sam possess a refined sense of propriety.

They know what is good, proper and right.

And, in my opinion, they represent these virtues to the highest degree.

Hovenden found his model for "Sam" in his neighbor, the elderly Sam Jones.

Samuel Jones was a free black man.

Today, it is presumed that Sam's real life wife, Hester, served as the model for "Chloe."

Or, more specifically, "Aunt Chloe."

This name was easily recognizable to late 1800's viewers because "Aunt Chloe" was the wife of Harriet Beecher Stowe's literary character, "Uncle Tom."

"Chloe" represents the stalwart black domestic worker who is the very backbone of the ante-bellum Southern household.

In 1881, Thomas Hovenden moved to Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania.

Ultimately, he chose a house that had served as a stop on the underground railroad.

We may be correct to assume that the house and all that it symbolized profoundly affected the painter.

He used the cozy abode as a backdrop for several of his domestic genre scenes.

Eventually, Hovenden created a series of paintings honoring the heritage of abolitionism that distinguished Plymouth Meeting - a peace-loving Quaker settlement.

Let's examine "Chloe and Sam' closely.

What is that circular object Sam is holding in his right hand?

It's a lid to a pot.

Sam has removed the lid so he can better see what's cooking in that copper pot.

Domestic portraiture doesn't get any more basic than this.

Most of us can relate to Sam's desire to check on his culinary work.

It's part of what naturally happens when you cook.

But what I love about Sam's portrait is the upward, vertical position of his left hand.

His fingers are gently bent toward his head.

Is our artist deliberately trying to point to Sam's head with those lithe fingers?


But we don't really know.

If that is the case, perhaps Hovenden wants us to realize that Sam is thinking about his soon-to-be meal.

But there could be more to it than that.

For me, Hovenden's Sam has become a master cook.

One who has gone beyond the point of simple domestic duty.

Indeed, Sam is creating an edible masterpiece.

With the grace and flair of any respected artist.

Frankly, I can hardly wait to be invited over for a taste of whatever is brewing in his pot!

Now let's take a look at Chloe.

The light shines directly on her creamy cotton bodice.

Under that bodice beats a heart of gold.

Chloe is a caretaker extraordinaire!

How do we know?

Obviously, she's tending to her batch of ironing.

But there's something else.

She's glancing down at Sam's pot.

And checking up on Sam's activities.

Chloe is a multi-tasker.

Like every single domestic goddess on this planet.

She's got to oversee the whole of what's going on!

But is there any sign that she is a meddler?


Not at all.

She's simply investigating and surmising.

Perhaps she's dreaming about the delicious things to come from Sam's creative hand.

Don't you just love that fabulous turban on Chloe's head?

The colors in that turban echo the rich terracottas and the forest greens seen in the layered rugs under Chloe's feet and in the folded fabrics on the chair.

Except for these intense shots of color, this room is awash in earth tones of subtle beige and brown.

I love the fact that Chloe is wearing glasses.

Obviously, she needs them in order to see her work.

But in my heart of hearts, I want to believe that Chloe is a woman of spiritual humility and godly refinement as well.

She has evolved in that way because she studies her Bible every day.

Chloe knows what's important in her life.

And she's determined to stay focused on all that is true and edifying.

I do not mean to imply, however, that Sam and Chloe don't know how to have a rollicking good time.

Because I truly sense that they do.

Their good times are filled with conversation,  laughter and affection for family and friends.

Maybe even some dancing and game playing.

Oh, my!

Our glimpse into the everyday lives of Chloe and Sam humbles us.

There is no way for us to understand the hardships of their lives.

We were not alive when they lived and breathed.

When they suffered through body and spirit wrecking work.

Uncalled for abuse.

And the deepest humiliations.

I am glad of it.

Not long ago, The Amon Carter Museum presented a lecture entitled "Beyond the Power of Words to Tell."

A discussion of Hovenden's "Chloe and Sam" was included in that lecture.

The title of the lecture says it all, doesn't it?

There are those times when words alone will not suffice.

That was the feeling that settled over me when I first met "Chloe and Sam."

I feel privileged that I got to "visit" them in their own home.

Where the rich tapestry of their private lives is so beautifully represented.


Harriet Beecher Stowe's moral charge to her reader's is this:

"Think of your freedom every time you see "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

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