They Knew What They Liked


The focus of the composition is on a young man with an air of rustic innocence about him, already taller than his mother, dressed in his Sunday best, about to leave the old farm home to make his way in the great world. The last meal has been eaten—in silence, one suspects. The agony of parting is now at hand. As the mother, however lightly, clings to his lapels, searching his face as if to memorize it against the future, the boy remains impassive. There is much to be felt but nothing more to be said. Plain people do not say much about their emotions. Another figure (an aunt, perhaps?) sitting in the shadows at the left holds a package on her lap. Is it a gift for the boy, or from him? Where is he going—to the boundless West or the lonely city? The painter leaves it to the viewer to fill out a story line of his own choosing. The old grandmother sitting at the dining table, the young sister standing in the hall door, the wistful dog, all reflect the heartache of the moment of farewell, while the father moves toward the door with his son’s carpetbag, masking his feelings with an air of hurry and impatience.

In 1890, when Breaking Home Ties was painted, most American artists, their patrons, and their public were but little removed from the life of the family-operated general farm. But the great trek from farmstead to factory was well under way, a social and economic fact widely recognized and deeply felt. The Hovenden painting, with its “finish,” its narrative interest, its evocative quality, was recognized at once as a classic expression of popular taste in its time. Nor was its time a brief one.

The picture created a sensation at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. In the summer and fall of that year there were few visitors to the great White City who returned to their homes without the name of this picture on their lips. Like great columns of ants, one authority recalls, the crowds tramped through the gallery until the worn carpet had to be replaced many times in front of Hovenden’s canvas. The painting’s universal appeal was demonstrated again in its warm reception at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis in 1904. And in 1915, “Not only the carpet but the floor in front of the picture had to be replaced before the close of the [Panama-Pacific] Exposition at San Francisco,” it is recalled by the critic and art historian, Eugen Neuhaus. And the picture has remained a favorite whenever it has been exhibited, down to the present day.

The picture that aroused emotion was deemed to represent the highest achievement in artistic realizalion. One woman, a Chicago Fair visitor deeply moved by the silent drama between mother and son, declared that there was more genuine religion in it than in any revival she had ever attended, a judgment in which we might concur today without too much difficulty.

“John,” said a male viewer, standing in the gallery and appraising Hovenden’s canvas, “there is soul in that picture.”

“I never saw anything upset me as much as that picture does,” remarked another. “If it were my own experience written out, it could not tell the story of my leaving home more plainly.”

Marietta Holley, popular novelist, essayist, humorist, and cracker-box commentator on the manners of the period, speaking through her widely known character, Samantha, in Samantha at the Fair, said she found a number of paintings at the Exposition in Chicago which

rousted up her feelin’s to an almost alarmin’ extent … And then there wuz another picter called “Breakin’ Home Ties.”

A crowd always stood before that.

It wuz a boy jest a-settin’ out to seek his fortune. The breakfast-table still stood in the room. The old grandma a-settin’ there still; time had dulled her vision for lookin’ forward. She was a-lookin’ into the past, into the realm that had held so many partin’s for her, and mebby lookin’ way over the present into the land of meetin’s … But in the mother’s face you can see the full meanin’ of the partin’ …

You turn away, glad you can’t see that last kiss.

The creator of Breaking Home Ties, Thomas Hovenden, was born in Dunmanway, Ireland, December 28, 1840. He studied drawing at the Cork School of Design. In 1863 he emigrated to America, studied in New York and later in Paris. After some years’ residence in Brittany, he returned to make the United States his permanent home and to paint native folk subjects. He became professor of painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, following Thomas Eakins. With his home and studio at Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania, Hovenden became associated with the artistic life of Philadelphia rather than New York.