Since my last two posts have featured an 18thc sampler and another worked in 1673, it's not surprising that embroidery and sewing have been in my thoughts lately. When I came across this charming painting with women sewing in a London garden, I knew I had to share it here. As always, please click on the images to enlarge them.
The Chalon Family in London was painted around 1800 by Jacques-Laurent Agasse (1767-1849), who was known primarily as a painter of animals. Born in Switzerland, he studied art in Paris, and came to England in the late 18thc to paint the portraits of the favorite dogs and horses (though he also painted at least one giraffe) of the British aristocracy. Unfortunately, Agasse seems to have suffered the fate of many artists who have more creative talent than business acumen, and, as one historian put it, he "was born poor and died poor."
So who are the people in this painting? I'm guessing that this is the Chalon family mentioned in an 1862 edition of the Art Journal. These Chalons were French Protestants, driven by the French Revolution first to Switzerland, and then finally settling in London. The two sons of the family, Alfred and John Chalon, both in time became artists, and it seems likely they would be acquainted with Agasse, a fellow emigre from Switzerland who was also familiar with Paris.
It's an informal painting, the kind of picture that artists make as gifts for friends or for their own amusement, and small (only about 5" x 7".) Even though the specific identities of the people have been forgotten, they definitely have the look of a family at ease with one another. The women are engaged with their work, while the men talk over the wall. Though there's no documentation, I wouldn't be surprised if the man leaning over the fence was Agasse himself, bottom left.
But all that speculation aside, there's a wealth of details in the clothing of the four women. The oldest woman, upper left, sitting by herself and warily looking up at the artist, is dressed in the style of an earlier generation, in a plain gown, kerchief and ruffled cap. She's also wearing a floral-printed pinner apron, something I can't recall seeing before (Has anyone else out there seen one in a collection or in another painting?) Instead of needlework, it appears that she's peeling white turnips with a plate of peeled ones on the ground beside her, and more turnips with the leaves still attached to her left.
The four younger women are much more stylishly dressed in the high-waisted gowns and bonnets of the early 19thc. I'm particularly intrigued by the blue over-bodice or sleeveless spencer with the little ruffle at the back - don't you wish she'd turn around to show the front?
Gathered around a polished table and seated in chairs that were probably brought outdoors from an inside parlor, the women are making the most of the sunlight, workbaskets at the ready. The woman in the center is wearing eyeglasses, and I wonder if the woman to the left is also wearing them. Eyeglasses of the era didn't necessarily hook around the ears, but instead were secured with a ribbon through the bows and across the back of the head; is the black ribbon just above her nape attached to her eyeglasses?
The Chalon Family in London by Jacques-Laurent Agasse, c1800, Yale Center for British Art.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.