Marcus Stone, The Painter's First Work (1862)

Painting in the Legion of Honor Museum, San Francisco

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(Click the image for a lightbox view)

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It is possible that the woman in the portrait is -- or was -- the boy's mother and the wife of the man in the red coat. The clothing and fabrics the boy has dragged out of the armoire were possibly the clothing of the deceased woman, whose presence the young artist has attempted to recreate.

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Note that the portrait on the wall is one of a pair: we can see the frame of the companion work, obscured by an opened door, on the right. Is the obscured canvas a portrait of the lady's husband, the man in the red coat?

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Chalk drawing of a sedan chair below the sketch:

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The young artist is distressed by the scolding (note his crossed feet); but he still holds on to his drawing implement, and his face displaces a countenance at once fearful and defiant.

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The father’s companion, in black clothes, is possibly the boy’s future art teacher (note the portfolio in the man’s left hand). He is clearly impressed with his future student’s ability, and seeks to draw the father’s attention to the boy’s talents.

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COMMENTARY

The Painter’s First Work provides an excellent example of how a single significant instant can be broken up into several parts: the son’s marking on the furniture, the father’s anger, the friend’s acknowledgement of the value and promise of what the boy has drawn (there may be a fourth in the maid’s entrance , but I haven’t figured out the significance of that appearance yet). 

One way to see the three attitudes of son, father, and friend is as a three-part division of time: the son’s past activity, the father’s present anger, the friend’s perception of the future promise in the boy’s work. Of the three divisions of the significant instant here, it is the friend’s assessment of the future promise that transcends the momentary conflict between father and son. The title of Marcus Stone’s composition — The Painter’s First Work — indicates that, in the future, the young man will continue to pursue a career in painting. It is the friend who perceives the true significance of the present.

There is another possible interpretation of the relationship among the man, the woman, and the child: the young artist is the woman's child -- possibly by the man in the red coat. The hair coloring of the woman and child, plus the general features of their faces, seem very similar. And could she be pregnant? If all this is so, the relation between the young artist and the woman in the portrait on the wall becomes even more complex.

All the above may be an over-reading of the work, which the author of an 1893 issue of the Art Journal saw as simply "a domestic incident imagined and treated with considerable sense of humour."

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