The more I live with the Museum’s American collection, the more I am intrigued by the curious and inexplicable things I see in the paintings. I’m still puzzling over whatever is in the window of Georgia O’Keeffe’s Cebolla Church. A different sort of puzzle lies at the heart of a picture painted a century before O’Keeffe’s church. At first glance this picture seems innocuous enough: a young man pausing to let two horses drink from a shallow stream. It’s a lazy summer day, the sky tossed with clouds. Watering the Horses must have seemed a bucolic idyll to the New Yorker who bought the painting in 1852. (Let us not forget it was the denizens of crowded, noisy, malodorous cities who were the principal patrons of landscape painters.) The artist, Junius Brutus Stearns (1810–1885), was a Vermont-born portrait painter who occasionally tried his hand at historical subjects, such as vignettes from the life of George Washington, and rural scenes. Unfortunately, his ambition too often exceeded his talent. Watering the Horses is one of Stearns’s more successful paintings and probably his oddest. And what makes it so successful is precisely its oddity. I am fascinated by the surprising and almost perverse way the artist stages the scene. There are any number of ways he might have depicted a man watering horses. But who in his right mind would pose them with their backs turned to us? I ask myself: are we being ignored? Shunned? No, the artist would not be so rude to his public. And call it picayune, but I am perplexed why a portrait painter would not show the man’s face. So, is this painting some joke—perhaps a visual pun—that I am just not getting? The setup seems deliberately comical, but is it truly funny? Should I be smirking? Until I figure it out, I am resigned to being the butt of the artist’s elusive wit.
Image: Junius Brutus Stearns (American, 1810-1885), Watering Horses, 1852, Oil on canvas, 29 x 36 ½ in. (73.7 x 91.4 cm), Purchased with funds from the State of North Carolina, 52.9.27