Old Woman and Child Reading a Book

In this scene of quiet domesticity, an old woman sits with her feet propped on a hassock, looking pensively into the distance. The young girl at her side reads from a large book. Such details of costume as the woman's lace ruff and the girl's unfinished carved chair place this in the seventeenth-century period context that was prized by American collectors and fashionable among Düsseldorf artists in the period before the American Civil War. The relationship between generations that is a recurrent theme in Woodville's work is treated here as contented coexistence. One of the defining social transformations underway in the early decades of the nineteenth century was the physical separation of male employment from the home, as industry became more concentrated and the population grew more urban. The developing middle class coped with the rigors and anxieties of this new economic structure in part by imbuing the home with deep associations of private refuge. The "separation of spheres" by gender placed women at the center of domestic life, where their role, according to a contemporary etiquette book, was to be "a corrective of what is wrong, a moderator of what is unruly, a restraint on what is indecorous." Many of Woodville's genre works are set in the rough-and-tumble public sphere of primarily male interaction, and exude a sense of anxiety about the ambiguous relations between strangers in anonymous public spaces. In this painting, which descended in the family of his second marriage, he turned from the unruly and indecorous external world to the calm and quiet of the home. The fact that the two subsequent generations of that family were accomplished artists may account for the inconsistencies of paint application in this unfinished work.

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