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They Knew What They Liked

April 2024
16min read

“I don’t know anything about art, but....” It is doubtless the oldest of all critical bromides, perhaps first uttered by some puzzled paleolith staring at a cave drawing, and echoing down the ages ever since. In every age, it would seem, some pictures draw the crowds and some do not. In our own time, when the galleries bulge with new and bizarre art forms, the struggle for comprehension continues. The public peers at strange sculptures, dangling mobiles, abstract paintings. What do these masses and streaks and blobs describe? The artist and the critic struggle to inform us that it is self-revelation—inner tension, social protest, torment of the soul. The crowd expects, however, that a picture will tell its own story. It shrugs, or giggles, and turns away. Nonsense! says the crowd. Philistine! cries the artist, and the controversy rages on.

What can be established with some certainty is what the American public did like long ago, in the days when the artist was concerned with his subject instead of with his inner self. It admired portraiture and history, especially as painted, not in realism but in reverence, by West and Peale and Trumbull; it was awed by scenery—romantic, spectacular, elaborately delineated by men like Cole and Bierstadt. Most of all, if attendance at exhibitions means anything, the multitude admired the picture that told a story, the tragic or humorous anecdote of everyday life, the moment of heroism or of emotion, recognizable and plainly felt.

On the next few pages is an examination of the history of four such pictures, once famous but now fading from public view. If they vary enormously in artistic quality, in subject, even in origin (two of them were painted in France)—they are united by a common fate: each was a popular favorite, for many decades, with its own generation. Indeed, the days of the first of them, still held in high affection after more than eighty years, have not yet run out, and are perhaps not likely to.



An unknown to biographical dictionaries and most art critics, Archibald M. Willard was the son of a Vermont Baptist minister who had removed to Ohio and grandson of an old Green Mountain Boy who was present at Burgoyne’s surrender. The artist was born August 22, 1836, in Bedford, Ohio. He scrawled pictures on barn doors and board fences at an early age and later sketched the country around the Cumberland Gap while serving in an Ohio regiment in the Civil War. After the war, Willard painted wagons in the loft of E. S. Tripp’s wagon works in Wellington, Ohio, often decorating the wagon boxes with woodland scenes and animal pictures, so that “Tripp’s wagons” became known throughout a wide region.

Willard had a knack for humorous subjects. Two of his pictures of child life, Pluck No. 1 and Pluck No. 2 , were reproduced as chromolithographs. Thousands were sold at $10 for the pair by James F. Ryder, a Cleveland photographer and art dealer. From his connection with Ryder, Willard earned enough to go to New York City in 1873 where he took an art course, his only formal training.

Looking ahead to the Centennial Exposition of 1876, Ryder was casting about for a picture that might be launched on the wave of patriotic sentiment generated by the Centennial. Willard showed him a crayon sketch of two comic drummers and a fifer, which he called Yankee Doodle, or a Fourth of July Celebration . The drawing poked sly fun at the bucolic character of a typical Independence Day celebration in a sleepy country village. Sensing the retrospective mood of the country, Ryder was able to persuade the artist to eliminate the horseplay. “Draw it again,” he told Willard, “then paint it—and leave the humorous vein out.”

The central figure, the old man with the drum, tall, straight, powerful-looking for all of his flowing white locks, was a likeness of Willard’s father. Humor lingers in the character of the fifer. The model was Hugh Mosher, a farmer and late fifer in Company H, Forty-third Infantry Regiment, Ohio Volunteers. The drummer boy was Henry Kelsey Devereaux. Young Devereaux was captain of the Third Company at Brooks Military School in Cleveland, whose smartly executed “Fours left into line and forward guide right double-quick march” in a competitive drill charmed the artist and led to the invitation to pose. The canvas was finished in the spring of 1876 and displayed in Ryder’s window. Crowds gathered at once to view the painting, and the prints aroused such popular enthusiasm that the art committee of the Centennial wired Willard to send the original to the fair. There was an acre and a half of art to look at, but it was the ex-carriage painter who gave the people the most compelling example of democratic painting. And the people responded. It was a generation trained to declaim with Patrick Henry, “Our brethren are already in the field!”; or to recite with gestures:

In their ragged regimentals, /Stood the old Continentals.

Old and young queued up to gaze in reverence. The critics ignored the picture, but the people wept.

The setting is a battlefield of the Revolutionary War. The American lines have been broken. Defeat is imminent—until an indomitable trio of musicians advances alone to spark a rally. The shrill whistle of the fife and the steady beat of the drums rise above the din. The lines re-form, and a dying soldier lifts his cap in a last salute to Old Glory.

The flag was an anachronism so far as 1776 was concerned, since the thirteen white stars arranged in a circle on a blue field, and the thirteen horizontal stripes, alternately red and white, were not authorized by Congress until June 14, 1777. But no matter; the fair visitors were not historical scholars. They got the message.

Willard had no thought of delineating three generations of one family, but the inference could be drawn, and the creator accepted the interpretation. Eventually he painted several versions. One hangs in the main hall of the Western Reserve Historical Society. A replica is owned by the city of Cleveland, which has also honored Willard with a park and a plaque. The father of the original drummer boy, General John Henry Devereaux, presented the painting at right to Marblehead, Massachusetts, ancestral home of the Devereaux family, where it still hangs in the public library.

The picture has been copied and parodied endlessly. A cartoonist of the World War I era took a shot at prohibition captioned Spirit of 1917. James Montgomery Flagg put the three patriots in the uniforms of World War I for a recruiting poster. Willard’s art has indeed influenced life, for the figments of his imagination have become features of many a subsequent parade, such as New York’s great Preparedness Day Parade in 1916, when 123,000 marchers streamed up Fifth Avenue behind living replicas of The Spirit of ’76 . Folklore though it is, the picture still retains the capacity to stir the emotions, to evoke the memory of the days when men fought face to face.



Painting at his home in the picturesque belle forêt of Fontainebleau, Jean François Millet completed his L’Homme à la Houe in 1863. The finished canvas aroused a storm of abuse. Millet was belittled as the “peasant’s Dante,” the “rustic Michelangelo.” Court ladies could be depicted as they played at being shepherdesses, but a serious treatment of peasant themes—that was not a fit subject for art in France. Besides, critics saw in the painting of this simple, gentle, devout Catholic, the spirit of anti-Christ, the insidious brushwork of a socialiste.

But the nation which had recently freed the slave and saw itself as a refuge for all who were oppressed responded enthusiastically to 16 by 20 inch prints in monotone of The Man with the Hoe. America approved of Millet’s statement of his purpose—to show the dignity of labor. It approved warmly of his spotless personal life, lived far from the bohemian iniquities of Montmartre, and of his remarkable directness in handling paint. There was, too, a fascination in the tales which crossed the sea of his early struggles, grinding poverty, and belated recognition. Finally, the United States liked The Man with the Hoe for good intrinsic reasons—its sentiment, its heart, and because it was, in a sense, about farming.

Through countless prints and reproductions, the North American public became familiar with the sturdy, rather ungraceful figure of the peasant laborer. He is seen bent with fatigue. The calloused hands rest heavily upon a clumsy hoe as the weary worker seeks a moment of repose. He wears the worn blue trousers and stout wooden sabots of the French peasant, hat and blouse laid aside nearby.

The history of Millet’s picture might have developed along conventional lines had not a California school superintendent, Edwin Markham, been unable to forget the experience of seeing the painting reproduced in Scribner’s Magazine in 1886. Markham viewed the picture as a “symbol of betrayed humanity.” Later, the original painting was exhibited in San Francisco. “I stood before the painting,” Markham wrote later, “absorbing the majesty of its despair, the tremendous import of its admonition. I immediately jotted down a few of the opening lines of my poem … the few opening words, just enough to … nail fast my purpose to write a poem that should cry the lost rights of the toiling multitude.” The poem was written at a white heat of indignation and published in the San Francisco Examiner, January 15, 1899. The forty-nine line jeremiad begins:

Bowed by the weight of centuries he leans Upon his hoe and gazes on the ground,*/ The emptiness of ages in his face, /And on his back the burden of the world .

The poem leaped across the continent like a prairie fire, was reprinted in countless newspapers, became the subject of editorials, oratory, debate, and outpourings of praise from such disparate persons as Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Dr. David Starr Jordan, William James, Henry van Dyke, Eugene V. Debs, Henry Ford, Leland Olds, and William Jennings Bryan. William Randolph Hearst employed Bryan to interpret the poem’s message in the New York Journal. Bryan tied it directly to the political issues of the day—tax laws, child labor, trusts, and monopolies. Markham’s phrases and couplets were on every tongue—”a brother to the ox,” “slave of the wheel of labor,” and the apostrophe to “masters, lords and rulers in all lands,” with its ambiguous but threatening warning of impending menace. The Christian Register saluted both Markham and Millet for sounding a call for social justice in an age that worshipped success, long-distance telephones, and roll-top desks. Collis P. Huntington, the railroad magnate, taking the other side of the question, offered a prize for the best poetical answer to Markham and Millet. Francis J. McConnell, senior bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church and former president of the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America, preaching a retrospective sermon on “Brotherhood” in 1943, favored the poem over the picture. “I do not pretend,” he said, “to a knowledge of poetic form, nor to a superior understanding of art, but I have always felt that Markham’s poem of The Man with the Hoe is much more powerful than Millet’s painting.” The bishop didn’t know much about either poetry or art, as he freely admitted, but he knew what he liked.

With unusual presence, a quiet manner, gray beard, and long hair, appearing, as Louis Filler has said, like “a somewhat more responsible Whitman,” Markham leapt to international fame and made a tidy fortune out of his proletarian protest. It was endlessly parodied, as The Man with the Load, The Man with the Lawn-Mower, and The Woman under the Heel of the Man with the Hoe. Fallacious though it was to make the analogy between the French peasant and the American farmer, the latter already largely industrialized with power machinery, both the angry upholders of the status quo and its bitterest opponents accepted the comparison as being relevant.

The artist himself repudiated any attempt at preaching through paint. With his feeling for the rhythm of life and nature and the seasons, Millet was a part of the peasant world he studied, nicknamed significantly during his stay in Paris, the “Wild Man of the Woods.” He was decidedly not the type to speak for the proletariat.

Jean François Millet was born in October, 1814, in the hamlet of Gruchy, near Gréville. The father and mother cultivated their farm, maintaining the family in respectable poverty. Jean François, too, labored in the fields, and precociously sketched local scenes on the walls of the Millet cottage. In 1837, he went to study in Paris, where he was set at copying academic paintings. To live, even miserably, Millet turned out facile pictures in the manner of Boucher and Watteau for twenty francs each, unsigned portraits at five or ten francs. The long martyrdom came to an end when he settled in a tiny stone cottage amidst the wild and chaotic beauties of Fontainebleau. There he found his artistic mission. From this period come The Sower, The Gleaners, The Angelus, and the hoe-man.

“Can you “ look upon The Man with the Hoe without tears?” asked Elbert Hubbard in his Little Journeys to the Homes of Eminent Painters . Fra Elbertus addressed a generation which approached Millet’s peasant in light of current problems—the conflict of urban and rural interests, the depression of 1893, the rise of the trusts, the tensions between the debtor West and creditor East. And of course they saw the picture through the poem. These were yeasty times, and the early twentieth-century American was happy in identifying the issues on which he felt strongly with the rich gravy browns of the Barbizon painter’s palette.


High on any list of the paintings most eagerly viewed, admired, and purchased in the form of photogravure wall prints, must appear the figure painting called Breaking Home Ties, a homely but well-painted scene from nineteenth-century American rural life, done in low-keyed oils by Thomas Hovenden, an Irish-American of warm and genial personality. The picture was equally successful both as an exhibition piece and as an adornment of countless American homes. It made vivid a contemporary social situation and told a moving “human” story.

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.

In his later work, Hovenden turned to themes taken from Negro plantation life and genre subjects drawn from aspects of the home and fireside of the ordinary American. He also painted elaborate historical compositions in the life-size salon tradition, such as the incident from the Battle of Gettysburg entitled In the Hands of the Enemy and The Last Moments of John Brown. This latter canvas was suggested by Whittier’s poem based upon the legend that Captain Brown, on the way to the gallows, kissed a Negro baby. Although Hovenden’s treatment of The Last Moments is somewhat unreliable as history, it hit off graphically the old agitator’s place in the national imagination.

Today, Thomas Hovenden is remembered chiefly for the fluent, sincere, and carefully painted Breaking Home Ties. He would undoubtedly have developed further his bent for narrative pictures with social interest and deepened his insight as a recorder of men and manners, but for his sudden and tragic death. On August 11, 1895, at an unguarded railroad grade crossing not far from his studio, the artist was struck by an engine. He had gallantly leaped in front of the train to save a little girl. Both artist and child were killed. Ironically, Thomas Hovenden was at the time the leading spirit in an effort to obtain adequate protection at the crossing: his own untimely end was as charged with pathos as any incident he ever set down on canvas.


It was early May in 1913, with a shy touch of New York spring in the air, when a bulky man with short legs, divided whiskers, and uncompromising eyes, sauntered along West Forty-sixth Street. At Number 13 he paused in front of the building occupied by Braun & Company, art dealers. He stared, looked again in disbelief, then froze. In the window was displayed a print of a picture entitled Matinée de Setembre by Paul Chabas. The subject was a demure but undraped young woman. Rather self consciously, she inched her way into the chilly shallows of a lake.

Anthony Comstock, reformer, professional enemy of sin, and secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, arched his back, marched into the art store, and flashed his badge.

“Take her out at once,” Comstock ordered the clerk, “the picture of the girl without any clothes on.”

Out of the uproar that ensued arose the most heated controversy over nudity, art, and morals which had engaged the attention of the American public since Hiram Powers exhibited his statue Greek Slave in 1843—a scandal or a flag of freedom, as one viewed it, for this was at a time when Edward Everett in Boston was draping his copy of the Apollo Belvedere.

Comstock had clashed with the art world before. He had, for instance, seized 117 photographs of the masterpieces of Bouguereau and others who had won distinction in France, as “lewd French art.” He had tackled another art form in trying to banish the voluptuous dancer, Little Egypt, from the midway at Chicago. On that occasion the reformer had undertaken to demonstrate the iniquities of the danse du ventre for a fascinated New York World reporter who said later, “The performance was interesting, but not libidinous.”

And so it was with these accomplishments behind him that Comstock told the clerk in the New York art shop, “There’s too little morning and too much maid.” The abashed Braun employee got the picture hook and hauled Miss Morn out of the window.

When the manager of the gallery returned from lunch he promptly put September Morn right back where she had been. The picture hit the front pages of the nation’s press, adorned calendars, and became the toast of barbershop art critics. Framed copies appeared upon the walls of countless homes. Comstock never returned to West Forty-sixth Street, probably because he knew that the picture was not actionable. There were other reverberations. The Civic Purity League of Watertown, New York, found that dozens of copies were appearing in the windows of local business houses and told the mayor to get busy. “Bathhouse John” Coughlin, Chicago alderman, announced that September Morn could not be publicly displayed in Chicago. The Post Office ruled that postcards bearing the likeness of the blonde French model could not be sent through the mails.

The newspapers ragged Comstock unmercifully for going to war against Chabas’ nymph, who was generally regarded as being just about the most modest young lady who ever hung her clothes on a hickory limb.

The judges of the First District Appellate Court said in ruling on the case which arrayed the Chicago police against art, “The picture is not indecent, although that may not be said of much of the exploiting to which it has been subjected.” Pirates flooded the country with reproductions, and the picture became the subject of vaudeville routines. The girl appeared on candy boxes, cigar bands, even watch fobs. Tin Pan Alley knocked out a Matin (sic) de Septembre waltz for the pianoforte. William Hammerstein announced that he would reproduce Chabas’ composition in “living picture form” for the opening of Hammerstein’s Roof Garden in New York, come June.

Paul Chabas, a pupil of Bouguereau and Robert Fleury and veteran member of the conservative Société des Artistes Français, had long been a painter of graceful and flattering portraits in which he made every woman look like a social symbol—at least as elegant as a baroness. But he had another string to his bow; “il a rendu avec beaucoup de charme le nu feminin,” according to Bénézit. This gave him occasion to paint innumerable young women of France, bare as jaybirds, in soft rosy grays as they took a bath or got into or out of assorted lakes, rivers, and boats.

But it was September Morn, painted in the early morning sunlight on the shore of Lake Annecy in Upper Savoy, that brought Chabas an international reputation. From the commercialization of his picture the artist received not a sou. “Nobody has been thoughtful enough to send me even a box of cigars,” he once remarked plaintively. Chabas died in 1937, rich and famous, but the only picture in his room when he died was a copy which he had painted from memory of the nude who made him famous. The model, he revealed shortly before his death, had made a fortunate marriage, was the mother of three children, and had put on the pounds. The gallant academician never revealed her name.

The picture was purchased in the year of the great American uproar by a wealthy Russian for the equivalent of $10,000. He took it to Moscow, and no more was heard of it. Long believed lost, it was located in Paris by the United Press in 1935. It was in the private art collection of Calouste S. Gulbenkian, owner of, among other treasures, five per cent of the stock of the Iraq Petroleum Company, Ltd. Installed in the finest house in Paris, just off the Champs Elysées, guarded by a thirty-five foot barricade, burglar alarms, a canine corps, and a staff of private secret service men, September Morn was, at last, in very select company, artistically speaking—hanging among the choicest works of Boucher, Fragonard, Guardi, La Tour, Monet, Cézanne, Renoir, and Degas.

Perhaps because, as the wizened little oil wizard said, “Only the very best is nearly good enough for me,” the Chabas found its way into the hands of a New York gallery. A Philadelphia broker and sportsman saw it, bought the painting, and in 1957 presented it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The museum put the canvas on public exhibition, appropriately enough in the month of September, in the Great Hall at the foot of the stairs, flanked by an honor guard of potted ferns. It was the place reserved for only the most important new acquisitions.

The Metropolitan was cautious about saying that Chabas’ etherealized nude constituted great art. It was, Dudley T. Easby, Jr., secretary of the museum, said, “an art document,” which deftly moved Miss Morn into the sociology department. A couple of longhaired art students glanced at the picture, looked at each other, and uttered a single disdainful word: “Chabas.” A suburban housewife, after studying the picture, said thoughtfully, “It could blend with any rug or furniture.”

Thus, after fifty years of living dangerously, September Morn achieved peace and respectability at last.

* He looks up, as a matter of fact.

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