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Art : Harry Willson Watrous : Sophistication

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Harry Willson Watrous - SophisticationSophistication

A Cup of Tea, a Cigarette, and She

Oil on Canvas
28 ¼ x 24 ¼ in.
c. 1908
1931.391.159
On display in: Haggin Room

Sophistication is a typical example of Watrous’s numerous relatively large paintings of attractive women made between 1905 and around 1918. These women, many with the same red hair as this model, often wear dark clothing and pose in profile against a light background. This contrast and the close viewpoint emphasize shape and contour rather than perspective, although Watrous by no means abandons modeling. The women of this series sport fashionable garb; the svelte lines of this model are enhanced by the mannish suit that can into fashion in the 1890s. The feathered hat complements her graceful silhouette, as does the elegant chair, while the almost primitive paintings on the wall behind her act as a witty foil.

This cool femme fatale is the embodiment of upper-class idleness described so eloquently in the novels of Edith Wharton. She sits nonchalantly smoking a cigarette and waiting for we know not whom. The title Watrous gave this painting for its exhibition at the Nation Academy of Design in 1908 – A Cup of Tea, a Cigarette, and She – seems to imply the presence of an unseen male admirer. This is, of course, a clever and modern paraphrase of the famous lines of the Rubaiyat of omar Khayyam, “a Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread – and Thou.”

This painting is as modern as Watrous dared to be. He was no great admirer of progressive trends in twentieth-century art, but he did single our “simplicity. Nice lines and compactness” as positive qualities. These are certainly found here. The serpentine art-noeveau lines of the figure, hat, and chair are inevitable reminders of the poster designs of his old classmate, Toulouse-Lautrec, especially his Divan japonais of 1892. While Watrous accepts some of the Japanese-inspired design principles, he adapts them to his own more academic techniques. His method of working also helps to explain the striking result. Instead of beginning with a life-drawing of a model, he would make a quick sketch of the figure, evidently to work out of composition. The he would have his model pose according to his drawing.

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