Seymour Joseph Guy: 'Little Master' of American genre painting

About 1866 Guy developed a greater interest in creating interior genre scenes. His first major attempt to combine portraiture and genre painting was his 1866 work The Contest for the Bouquet: The Family of Robert Gordon in Their New York Dining-Room (Fig. 3). The Scottish-born Gordon (1829–1918) was a founding member and trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and had previously acquired Guy’s genre scene Love Launched a Ferry Boat (c. 1863, whereabouts unknown). The Contest for the Bouquet features the dining room of the Gordons’ house on West Thirty-third Street. Their extensive art collection, consisting mainly of American landscapes, is tiered on the walls of the elegantly appointed room. The vivid blue draperies and dress of the older daughter and the bright red leggings of the younger son add brilliant touches of color to the otherwise subdued tones.11

The setting for the picture provided Guy with a rare opportunity to completely articulate a large interior space, and he masterfully handled the rendering of the room’s perspective. During his lifetime he was highly regarded for his knowledge of perspective, and was sometimes called upon by colleagues seeking help with their compositions. In 1885 a writer for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle remarked that Guy was “deeply versed not only in the mechanism of painting, but in perspective, and has made some valuable observations in the measurement of distant objects and the effect of distance on color and light.”12 It was also reported that Guy “can analyze a composition, scale its merits and defects and reveal its hidden curves and lines as accurately as the chemist analyzes a drug.”13

The primary focus of The Contest for the Bouquet is on the three children standing in the left foreground, two of whom playfully attempt to grab the bouquet from the outstretched hand of their older brother, whose other hand firmly holds onto his school books. Guy’s genre paintings regularly feature books that are either held in a child’s hand or that have been momentarily put aside because of an interruption or distraction. A number of pictures also center on mothers reading to their children. The three children are probably angling to see which one of them will have the honor of presenting the floral bouquet to their mother, who looks on calmly from her chair while holding her youngest daughter. Interestingly, the arrangement of figures brings to mind Jacques Louis David’s Oath of the Horatii of 1784 (Musée du Louvre, Paris). In addition to combining portraiture and genre, Guy appears to be slyly alluding to French neoclassical history painting, an unexpected source for such a playful family scene.

In October 1867 Guy followed up The Contest for the Bouquet with his painting Evening (Fig. 4), which was commissioned by John M. Falconer and features a portrait of his mother, Catherine Stewart Falconer, seated in the picture-lined parlor of John’s Brooklyn house.14 A gas lamp bathes the corner of the room in a warm radiant glow and casts a double reflection on the glass covering the picture at the top center. The reflections help create the impression of greater spatial depth. The painting is a tour de force of reflections and shadows. Mrs. Falconer’s head casts a large shadow on the picture immediately to her left and creates a reflection on the glass covering the print hanging behind her. The work is composed of a complex layering of opaque colors, glazes, and scumbles, and the overall color scheme is dominated by lush reds and browns. Above all, Guy was concerned with the careful and meticulous rendering of tonal values. This remained true throughout his career, even on those rare occasions when he employed a brighter and more varied palette.

Evening is one of a series of pictures that Guy painted between 1867 and 1873 that feature an interior bathed in the light of an oil lamp, gaslight, or candle. Contemporary critics and art writers felt that he rendered such effects with striking success and reported that he “studied the problems of artificial light scientifically.”15 Natural and artificial light appear side by side in Making a Train (Fig. 6), which depicts a partially disrobed young girlplaying dress-up in an attic bedroom flooded by moonlightfrom a dormer window. The child’s pose is partially echoed in the print that hangs precariously from a single nail on the wall behind her, a mezzotint engraving after a well-known painting of about 1776 by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792) entitled The Infant Samuel (Tate Britain, London). That work features an image of the devout little boy Samuel kneeling in prayer in a ray of moonlight that streams into his bedroom from the open window beside him. Evidently, Guy meant the viewer to draw a connection between the vanity of the young girl and the piousness of young Samuel. In the United States in the mid-nineteenth century, it was common for artists to explore the nude within the coupled context of innocence and Christianity. Here it seems that the young girl, who has put her book and oil lamp down on the chair in order to amuse herself in the light of the moon, is in danger of veering from the path of virtue and innocence.16

Thank you for signing up.

by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

» View All