Monday, August 27, 2012


(Barking up the Wrong Tree, Francis William Edmonds, 1850, Birmingham Museum of Art)

The art world often takes itself a little too seriously.

That's why I am attracted to artists with a wicked sense of humor.

Such is the case with Francis William Edmonds who was known for his humorous depictions of American life.

Edmonds started his professional career as a banker in New York.

Perhaps he was a bit of a stuffed shirt at the time.

In any case, it didn't take long for him to catch a clue and enroll in the National Academy of Design.

The esteemed Mr. Edmonds wanted to be a painter.

But not at the risk of losing his day job.

He continued to work in the financial world while he studied painting at night.

After all, who knew if this painting gig was going to work out?

And why risk professional embarrassment if it didn't?

Francis decided to play it safe.

He exhibited his paintings under the pseudonym E. F. Williams.

As things turned out, Edmonds' paintings met with favorable reviews.

So he dropped the false name and the rest, as they say, is history.

Early on, Francis was known for his courtship scenes.

Aww – that's sweet!

But it wasn't long before he introduced an element of humor into this genre.

“Barking Up the Wrong Tree” is a fine example.

Let's take a closer look.

Here we see a decidedly older man trying to woo a young woman.

How do we know the man is in the act of wooing?

One look at his face tells the story.
His eyes are planted directly on the woman.

He only has eyes for her.

I wonder if the gentleman has an inkling of how this is going to go turn out?

Look at his frown.

Check out his pursed lips.

And his seriously set jaw.

He's not going into this quest with a high degree of confidence, is he?

He knows this is going to be a tough sell.

Another clue is found in Edmonds' composition of the painting.

He's placed the couple – and only the couple - in his “courting” room.

There isn't a chaperone in sight.

That's highly unusual when we consider the courting customs of the 1800's.

In fact, there were families who did not allow the courting couple to be alone at all – unless, of course, the gentleman was about to pop the question.

And how did the family know when the beau was about to pop the question?

In most families, the bride-to-be's father was in on the secret.

That's because he had already given his blessing to the beau when the suitor asked for the girl's hand in marriage.

Times have dramatically changed.

Still, it's a girl's prerogative to say “yea” or “nay” after the question has officially been “popped.”

Do we know which way our lass is leaning?

Well, she's certainly not looking at her long-in-the-tooth suitor.

She has her gaze firmly turned on us.

That's the first clue.

But there's more.

Do we detect a Mona Lisa-esque grin on that pretty face?

I believe we do!

And what category of emotion could possibly be lurking behind that sweet grin?

I've come up with one real possibility.

Perhaps that smile is saying to the suitor and to us:

“Not in a million lifetimes, honey!”

Alas, we'll never know.

But here's something I do know.

Our lady is holding a knitting needle firmly in her hand.

And it's aimed in the direction of her visitors.

I don't think she cares if the gentleman or his loyal pooch makes the first move toward her.

One of them is going to get taken out.

Unless, of course, she decides to go with Plan B.

In that case, both of them are going bye-bye.  

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