Artist: Julian Alden Weir
Commentary by Keith Lawrence
Associate Professor of English
Julian Alden Weir (1852-1919) owned the Utamaro print, Courtesans Donning Kimonos for the Traditional New Year Stroll; the print seems to have influenced the style and composition of Weir’s An Autumn Stroll. The subjects of Weir’s painting are allegedly his second wife, Ella Baker Weir (whom he married after his first wife—and Ella’s sister—died in 1893), and Weir and Anna’s daughter, Dorothy.
After learning about the subjects of this painting, I embraced it as one of my favorite works in BYU’s extensive collection. For me it has a storybook quality, perhaps because it reminds me of some of my favorite children’s novels—like Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s Understood Betsy, or Eloise Jarvis McGraw’s Sawdust in His Shoes—where aunts or uncles (or kind neighbors) raise an orphan child as their own, and where important family healing occurs. But its warm colors and impressionistic misty glow also make the painting otherworldly, loving, and almost magic.
Comparing An Autumn Stroll to Utamaro’s print is an engaging exercise. There are crucial similarities. In both works, the artist seems positioned in front of and a few feet above his subjects. He appears to look down to them; the horizon is high behind the subjects. In both works, the subjects are thus made vulnerable to us, the viewing audience. The courtesans in Utamaro’s print are far above expressing any emotion at being thus spied upon, but the woman in Weir’s painting seems vaguely surprised—and the children in both works retreat (at least partially) behind convenient adults.
Both works convey the illusion of interrupted motion, with the woman in Weir’s painting and the left-most courtesan in the Utamaro print caught in mid-step. This feeling of interrupted motion is balanced by the stasis of the children in each work; indeed, in Weir’s painting, the girl—on apparently realizing she is being observed—has already stopped dead in her tracks and has retreated behind her stepmother.
While the stylization is very different in the two works, both artists stylize the faces of their respective subjects. None of the subjects look directly at the viewer; even the girl in the Weir painting looks past the viewer—or, at most, through the viewer.
But there are important distinctions. Apart from the natural exterior setting of the Weir painting (as opposed to the abstract interior setting which the viewer of Utamaro’s print is required to imagine), the most important difference for me is in the subjects’ clothing. In the Utamaro print, the clothing is elaborate, portrayed in far richer detail than are the subjects themselves. The Weir painting, in contrast, shows clothing that is finally nondescript—clothing secondary to the subjects’ faces which attract our attention and retain our focus.
These are serene and lovely faces, the points in the painting where light and warmth are most intensely balanced. Although the faces and gazes are entirely independent of one another, they somehow bespeak mutual confidence, trust, and love. And knowing that this is a painting of real people very close to the painter himself makes this, for me, more than ever a wonderful “storybook” depiction.