I frequently find myself perusing the vaults at Wikimedia Commons, looking for clues about how people lived in times past. Winter Scene in New Haven, Connecticut, by George Henry Durrie is an intriguing window into the winter of 1858, a surprisingly intimate view of life in America just before the Civil War.
Durrie had a modest reputation during his lifetime, an indie struggling unsuccessfully to market his works. After his death, the American printmaking firm, Currier and Ives, ensured his works were kept in the public eye.
The grandeur of the sky is reminiscent of Constable’s work, and the painting, overall, is both bold and comforting. Under a large sky, we find a small farm. It’s a simple pastoral scene, a moment painted during a winter long passed into memory. It’s pleasant, almost boring scene in its common hominess. When you look at the larger picture, you may ask, “How is this intimate? The landscape and the sky provide the drama, while the people are completely overshadowed by the scenery.”
But there is another, deeper story, one that is overshadowed by the majestic landscape and threatening winter skies, and Durrie included these people for a reason.
In Connecticut in 1858 things were not as simple and bucolic as the wide view of this image portrays.
Quote from Matthew Warshauer in his article for Connecticut History:
The state descended into chaos at the start of the war, splitting into warring Republican and Democratic factions that sometimes faced off violently. Before the Southern states even seceded, the two parties faced off in the 1860 gubernatorial election, a contest that would decide the level of the state’s involvement once the war began.
Artists, then and now, frequently deal in allegory and misdirection. Then, as now, they were pressured to portray an acceptable vision life as it should be. They had to sell their work to live, so they did do that, but they still painted what they saw, inserting the truth into each painting. The story that Durrie hid within this painting can be found by examining the painting in detail. I have enlarged the important section for you.
A sled, drawn by a single horse and driven by a woman, has pulled up beside the gate. A man has emerged and is talking to her. In the doorway of the farmhouse, a woman and girl stand, watching the scene at the gate.
We can imagine that some drama exists in their relationships, beginning with the way the man is standing there, not inviting the woman in. She obviously doesn’t expect to be invited in by him but has come anyway.
The man speaks to the traveler, but his gaze is not focused on the woman who has traveled through the snow, bringing a large sack filled with… what? Presents? Food-gifts? Instead, he looks away, focusing on the fencepost. Is the visitor an unwelcome mother-in-law, or is she, perhaps, a travelling merchant and he is negotiating with her?
Did she purchase something? Perhaps they’re merely chatting and he just happens to be looking away.
The sky can be a clue to the deeper story, too. Dark clouds take up fully half of the scene, dwarfing the homestead. Storms threaten the peace and prosperity of this farm, and barren trees flourish. It’s 1858 and the country is divided politically and ideologically, and the threat of a civil war looms.
The final subliminal clue is in the title: Winter Scene in New Haven, Connecticut. The artist names the picture after the larger community, a town that doesn’t appear at all in the painting, instead of offering the farm’s name. Thus, the scene. the approaching storm threatening the peaceful farm, is an allegory depicting the mood of the larger community.
Does this small detail hidden in the larger picture depict a travelling merchant, a customer, or a disliked mother-in-law bringing gifts despite her son-in-law’s aversion? Or is there something deeper here? Nothing breaks up families or divides communities as surely as strongly held opposing opinions, and we were deeply divided in those turbulent times.
The story is there, and the world in which it is set is all prepared for you. George Henry Durrie painted it, and if you are looking for a deep story that echoes our modern political state of affairs, here it is.
Or, it could simply be a passing stranger, asking for directions on a winter’s day.
When you examine the art of the past closely and look for allegories, you may find a large story hidden within the the image. It’s up to you to interpret it and then write it.
Credits and Attributions:
Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:George Henry Durrie – Winter Scene in New Haven, Connecticut – Google Art Project.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:George_Henry_Durrie_-_Winter_Scene_in_New_Haven,_Connecticut_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg&oldid=249454341 (accessed December 14, 2017).
The Complicated Realities of Connecticut and the Civil War, by Matthew Warshauer, Ph.D., Professor of History at Central Connecticut State University. Copyright © Connecticut Humanities. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike 3.0 License. (accessed December 14, 2017)