Treasures from the Vault: Robert Reid

Elizabeth Kilmer, Exhibitions Content Manager

 As I sit in my office, I’m surrounded by views of that less than desirable interim between winter and spring – bare trees, grey skies, and brown, dead grass. All I can do is think of warmer, brighter months that seem far from reach. So, while looking for this month’s Treasure from the Vault, it’s no surprise that I was drawn to an early 19th or late 20th century painting by Robert Reid full of flowers: Defiant Autumn.

A portrait of a woman sitting, in a purple dress, her eyes downcast toward the viewer. She holds bunches of sticks with leaves and blends in with the colorful background.
Robert Reid, American, 1862-1929. Defiant Autumn. Oil on canvas, late 19th or early 20th century. Gift of the John Herron Art School, 1958.03. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Reid was an established American Impressionist, and in 1897 he co-founded the “Ten American Painters”, a group of Impressionists who rebelled against traditional Realism. Realism, or Regionalism, was the popular style in America during the second half of the 19th century that focused on sweeping landscapes idealizing the untamed West and Man’s duty to bring civilization to the wild, natural world. Reid and other likeminded artists, however, were drawn to the new styles coming from Europe. He and his fellow “Ten Artist Members” were largely French educated, and they often focused on elegant compositions with bright, luscious colors. This sets them further apart from other American Impressionists, specifically Hoosier Impressionists, who were typically educated in Germany. Artists in this latter group often used earthier, muddier colors in their compositions. We can see the influence of famous French artists such as Monet and Renoir in Reid’s paintings as he favors the soft, dappled brushstrokes of Impressionism, allowing colors and strokes to blend into one another. This effect creates a welcoming image, inviting viewers to peer closer at the painting.

Along with many of his colleagues, Reid typically focused on paintings of women and flowers, often combining them into one composition. We see a perfect example of this pairing in Defiant Autumn. In the center of the composition a woman is seated comfortably with her left arm resting in her lap and her right arm reaching up to gently clutch the foliage that envelops her. She has a large number of flowers gathered in her lap, so many she’s barely able to contain them in her arms. She is almost one with the flowers – her clothing and hair are loose, and the color is close to that of the petals around her. Through Reid’s use of loose brushwork, the edges between the foliage and her are blurred. Reid’s painterly style is wholly Impressionistic. The melting colors and forms capture movement, implying a captured moment in a continually changing scene as his muse becomes an embodiment of nature. The background strengthens this illusion, as it combines hues from her skin tone, clothing, and the flowers, bringing everything to the same compositional plane and portraying them as one dynamic subject.

This idea of woman as one with nature is emphasized by the fun tidbit that this painting is similar to one of Reid’s five murals in the Library of Congress, Smell. The Library of Congress series focuses on the five senses, and we can’t ignore that the sense of smell is embodied by flowers. There are few objects that incite smell as readily as flowers – how many times have you heard someone say “Stop and smell the roses?” Defiant Autumn invites you in to experience this sensation. What do you think this painting would smell like? In my mind it’s a rich, heady smell of flowers soaking up the sun – peaceful and relaxing.

While I was drawn to Defiant Autumn for the flowers and the olfactory pleasures they imply, the name is quite fitting too. We also see defiance in her face – she is staring boldly out at the viewer. She isn’t crumbling in the face of change, but is facing it head on. So, taking a cue from our muse, instead of getting blue over the persistence of cold temperatures and dreary rain, I remind myself that spring is in fact coming, and with it flowers and sunshine. While this painting is likely an embodiment of autumn hanging on in the face of impending winter, as the title Defiant Autumn suggests, we can use her inspiration now, on the other side of that harsh, bitter season. Spring is here on the calendar, and soon it will be here in nature.

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