Winslow Homer's Ghost Speaks Winslow Homer's Mystery Woman
– or Dream Lovers – Illuminated, Part II
Further exploring the identity of Winslow Homer's "Mystery Woman"
According to the Winslow Homer Record of Works (catalog raisonne) preface: "Speculation on Homer's expressive intent is not considered appropriate to the comprehensive factual record of his works. This is also not the forum for critical discussion of other's published interpretations of Homer's thoughts and intentions. This area of Homer studies is only entered upon where proposed readings of Homer's works are made based on mistaken, misunderstood or misrepresented data."

That being said, Abigale B. Gerdts, finishing director/editor of the Homer Record, having the final say-so regarding everything Homer has committed to the catalogue record entries which, in this writer's estimate, need at best to be reconsidered if not expunged.

Sarah Burns's conclusion regarding Winslow Homer and Miss Helena de kay is well considered in her essay "The Courtship of Winslow Homer", The Magazine Antiques, 2002. Yet upon reading A.B. Gerdts's input to the catalogue and in particular her insistence, that in one instance, Homer's cursive 'e' is in her opinion an 'o' has added further burden to efforts to set the record straight. And so was it, as A.B. Gerdts insists... "Go and see your clover picture - it was painted for you to look at." Or, was it as Sarah Burns says... "Go and see your clever picture - it was painted for you to look at"?

This terse communique was addressed to "Miss Helena de Kay", yet strangely there is no salutation. Underneath Homer's full signature the artist writes: "to my runaway apprentice" and Homer signs off, "Respectfully Yours,".

Intriguingly, Winslow Homer had previously penned at least a half-dozen letters to Helena de Kay, an occurrence unprecedented in our knowledge of an artist who remained virtually non-communicative regarding his ultra-guarded private life. Burns simply illustrates that Homer was essentially head-over-heels for Miss Helena, and this writer concurs.

Contrarily, A.B. Gerdts sees that situation as absurd and disallows any notion of Winslow Homer ever having a love interest or its crush equivalent even during his earlier less-inhibited Victorian life. So, let us review this sampling of Homer's preceding communiques to Miss Helena... revealing the condition this artlessly crush-stricken suitor's condition was in... note the cautious ebulliancy, then the changed demeanor.

"My dear Miss Helena. Believe me your most devoted and true and very sincere friend"
Regarding photographs of de Kay (likely taken by Homer himself): while deprecating his photographic efforts of her likeness as a failure, Homer yet reveals:
"I keep one for company this summer. It is like a Beethoven symphony to me as any remembrance of you will always be"
"If you will come to my studio, I shall have a chance to see you"
"My good work will depend on your coming to see me once a month at least, is this asking too much" "Truly yours"
"I shall paint for your approval" (!!!)

Now, back to that emphatically-underlined "clover /clever" picture. While Homer downplays its significance to a "sketch", it was in fact his formal portrait of Helena de Kay... and surely Miss Helena was innovator of the adjective - as Homer was never so naive as to denote his own work as "clever". But why "clever"? According to de Kay's life-long intimate Mary Hallock, de Kay preferred to dress in a "soft gray or warm dark brown with goldie highlights or a hint of red". So, did Homer overpaint in black to dramatize the message symbolized in this provocative work? The red rose (de Kay's own flower), fallen by her side... the closed book upon her lap... a closed chapter? All rendered in service of the Victorian taste for the secret language of flowers and symbols; symbols of failed romance and lost love - as seen through our forlorn artist's eyes.
And yet, from the sitter's perspective, her portrait – in black, no less,– a now unwelcome and forced remembrance of a one-sided, ill-fated romantic tragedy or some such... one which de Kay would rather put behind her?

Helena de Kay never did collect this painting - despite Homer's urging: "Why don't you limp into my studio on your way up or down and take it. I will give it to you with much pleasure. I am very jolly, no more long faces,it is not all wrong. Yours sincerely, W.H."

Some few weeks later, in response to a social invitation from de Kay (possibly her engagement party?), Homer replies: "I must refuse your invitation for Sunday, will you pardon me? I shall be very busy. So I say good bye and wish you all kinds of good luck. Your Friend, Winslow Homer".

And then the conciliatory communique... in appreciation of her gift to him: one of her flower paintings? One wonders about the subject flowers and the nature of the message... a peace offering?
Homer responds: "My dear Miss Helena. I have just found your picture. I think it very fine. As a picture I mean, not because etc. It must be fine if I think so. I thought of you once today and picked out a little girl (one of about fifty) as looking perhaps as you looked. She could outrun all the others and gave the teacher the most trouble and I doubt if she went to Sunday school but she was nice. I am very grateful to you. Sincerely Yours, Winslow Homer."
Finally Homer realizes that Richard W. Gilder, now de Kay's confirmed fiance, is indeed that last man standing.

Nevertheless, A.B. Gerdts disregards this written record and commits to the catalogue her own conceit: a pathetically asexual Winslow Homer; and while Sarah Burns notes that the ink on this pivotal letter is smeared as if no blotter were used, Gerdts interprets and insists that Homer's note reads "Go and see your clover picture. It was painted for you to look at". Gerdts overrules with absolute authority that this correspondence refers to one of several clover-themed paintings by Homer which depict a female subject holding or gazing upon a sprig of clover. One of the two viable works Gerdts offers depicts a "little girl" (Gerdts's description) wearing a brimmed bonnet. The other work depicts a young woman stooping to observe a plucked clover. Why either of these clover-themed works would have been painted exclusively for de Kay "to look at" remains unaddressed and moreover, where exists any specific - let alone intimate - meaning for Miss Helena to discern? Clover for any and all simply represent wishes for good luck.

Homer's portrait of Helena de Kay, now deemed acceptable as symbolic acquiescence to his rival, was given to and received by Mr. and Mrs. Richard W. Gilder upon their marriage in 1874. That A.B. Gerdts denigrating this work as not possessing the accepted criteria of portraiture and then further disdaining that Homer did not dignify this work with his signature is naive at best. Homer did initial the work upon its presentation as the wedding gift and de Kay herself contributed the work for exhibition under the classification of "portrait study" (Nov. 1894).
(No clover-themed work by Homer has ever been recorded or noted in either the de Kay or Gilder family circle.)

It would be appropriate to say Winslow Homer fostered a certain sense of sympathy and/or satire through symbolism and message depicted in his art. This is perhaps never more revealing than in the two oil portraits of lovely young women who enchanted the Victorian bachelor as he approached his fourth decade. Witness this first in the never-meant-for-exhibition private portrait of Helena de Kay, and secondly in the fortune-telling girl – twice-exhibited and then withdrawn (according to Abigale B. Gerdts – deducing Homer's realization that a picture of such exoticism and acutely personal significance wouldn't bring much admiration – or cash, both of which would have been his motivation for introducing it at the Century and then the Academy Annual).

More likely, it was Homer's message, intended primarily for Miss Helena – his method of declaring his enduring "lost first love", with that exoticism and personal significance being the real reason this painting was always in Homer's possession – as the chosen, never-for-sale "easel ornament", when that easel was not supporting some current work project.

Considering some of the unfounded catalog entries, such as her flat-out dismissal of the "import" of Homer's deliberate arrangement of the hand of cards, it appears A. B. Gerdts has essentially misunderstood both Helena de Kay's and the fortune-teller's "portraits", both of which tell us more about the private "Mr. Winslow" than all else. Adams's transbiguous theory piqued my interest to correlate the record with Burns's analysis, which appears on point. And yet Burns, as well as Gerdts, has overlooked any recognition of the fortune-teller girl as an important and perhaps willing recipient of Homer's ardor. It is this young woman who stands on reinforced ground as the true source of the Homer family tale: that of a young woman who Winslow had loved or wished to love and lost. Or did he? Gerdts's assertion of "no absolute proof" pales beneath Homer's overarching ironic nature. True to form, Homer has left behind compelling clues which one ignores at one's peril when peering into Winslow Homer's elusive private life.

Regardless of the unfortunately on-record discord between A.B. Gerdts and Sarah Burns (among others) regarding Homer's romantic interests... the message contained within de Kay's portrait is clearly conveyed through the established penchant for the language of flowers and symbolism. On the other hand, the equally viable message held by the fortune-teller's horseshoe of fate is clearly depicted "in the cards".

Here is a reading of this traditional seven-card Gypsy Horseshoe of Fate:
The first three cards are the most significant.
Jack of Hearts: represents the questioner, the Jack usually represents a younger man... one not yet settled. Hearts represent Love.
Queen of Hearts: represents a lover or bride.
Ace of Spades: represents trouble, strife, change, death. When positioned next to several Hearts it represents emotional turmoil.
The first three cards suggest ill-fortune in love.

The four remaining cards spell out future directions:
Six of Clubs: the possibility of earning money and wealth but only through hard work and effort.
Six of Hearts: represents compromise, self-sacrifice; when positioned in the middle of the suite represents two sets of circumstances at loggerheads.
Nine of Clubs: the promise of financial security.
Nine of Spades: represents negativity and depression and a round of life which has been difficult.
No Diamonds are contained in the suite. Diamonds represent wealth and the ability to place intellect before emotion.

There is nothing randomly dealt in this all-telling suite of cards - Homer put these cards in the fortune-teller's hand; they reveal the state of a man thwarted in love for both emotional and financial reasons. As for Miss Helena de Kay, she never was Winslow Homer's "Mystery Woman"; there is absolutely no mystery to their proper Victorian social intimacy within their contemporary social bounds. Mr. Winslow may have carried a torch for his "runaway apprentice" Miss Helena. But the unknown young fortune-teller girl, whose portrait resided upon his easel at the hour of his death: she is the best bet as Winslow Homer's historically elusive (and perhaps discretely kept) "mystery woman."

Finder/author's note:
This young woman - if in fact Homer's intimate - would appear uniquely positioned as the logical recipient of this entire found cache: her portrait in mantilla, her unadorned portrait (Ava), her sister or cousin's portrait with garnet earrings (Carmen), and her brother's or cousin's figure portrait with chair.

She may well have known and been fond of the young lad sat cross-legged on the floor (Homer's eldest nephew?). The two still-lifes round out the gift: the Mask with Books – perhaps she had admired it – and the inscrutable mannequin: might it be that Homer had revealed to her the message therein and felt it would be nowhere safer than with her? Seventy-three days later Homer embarked upon his second great watercolor period.

And then this future intrigue: the found cache of seven sheets were recovered over a period of five days, although the large sale was unboxed and dispersed over a period of several weeks. It seems reasonable that other "unsigned" works might well have emerged – unseen by myself – which were purchased by other collectors who also appreciated their individual merit. One is left to wonder if other unrecognized "Homers" adorn the walls of unwitting admirers in the north Florida environs...

-BC