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
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". Consider that Homer's portrait
of Helena de Kay has been compared to "Whistler's Mother", the latter appearing a sympathetic
if somewhat enigmatic portrait of a widowed mother by her son. But that Mlle. de Kay would
have knowingly, let alone willingly, sat for a formal portrait – or "sketch" for that
matter – in widow's weeds is simply incomprehensible.
It becomes apparent that Homer impetuously executed or overpainted in black to
dramatize – directly to de Kay – his
unbearable state of jilted frustration. 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, where surely his
rival would be in attendance, 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,
Finally Homer realizes that Richard W. Gilder,
now de Kay's confirmed fiance,
is indeed the 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.
In the Homer Record of Works, Vol. II, A. B. Gerdts allots an entire page-and-a-half to her
efforts to dismiss Sarah Burns's analysis of Helena de Kay's portrait as Homer's
"clever" picture ("painted for [her] to
look at"). Regarding Gerdts's assessement that Homer was referring to some
"clover" picture: the two works she puts
forth as the most viable candidates simply do not fill the bill. As a final refuge for her
argument, Gerdts proposes as a third candidate for the "clover" subject "some image which
has not survived". (No clover-themed work by Homer has ever been recorded or noted in either
the de Kay or Gilder family circle.)
Homer's portrait of Helena de Kay, dogmatically refused by the sitter, became afterwards
an acceptably symbolic acquiescence to his rival, and was given to and received by Mr. and
Mrs. Richard W. Gilder upon their marriage in 1874; after all, it was a Winslow Homer!
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).
It would be appropriate to say Winslow Homer fostered a certain sense of
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
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 fortune teller's 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
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
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 mysterious young
fortune-teller, 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."
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...