I’ve been hanging around the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston with bad intent. Well, it seems that way, a little, as I’m peeking in on this poor woman in her reverie. The picture is called “Leisure,” and it was painted in 1910 by William Worcester Churchill.
I feel a little better knowing that she must be dead. That didn’t sound quite right. I meant, I’m glad she’s achieved a kind of immortality by posing for this picture, at least until the oil in the paint flakes off the canvas or the Museum burns down; and I’m glad I can’t disturb her, because she looks comfortable.
In 1910, leisure was a newfangled concept to most of the people that trod the earth. The idea of a “weekend,” a rest from the work week, was just about to be invented in Britain, but for the aristocracy only. You didn’t get a day off at all if you were a beater for some viscount on a quail hunt on Sunday.
Look closely at the painting. The room is spare, but not barren. It looks urban outside the window, and the room looks small and cosy. To the right, there’s a screen in the corner to allow a modicum of privacy when dressing, and there’s a brass tub on the floor that looks like our heroine just used it to soak her feet. She’s propped comfortably on a divan, and reads the newspaper by the light of the window, and the leaf on the floor hints she’s had a minute to enjoy it already. A book and perhaps a folio stand by on the table if she wants to continue her bluestocking afternoon.
It’s been almost a hundred years, what’s changed? Well, everything, of course, but what about the idea — the idea of leisure?
Her surroundings are not drab. She has a modicum of privacy. She has time to herself. She has donned informal and comfortable clothing. the divan looks comfortable to perch upon, and allows a great deal of motility; that is to say, she can shift her position in it to various postures to avoid becoming cramped or stiff. She has something to occupy and stimulate her mind. She has likely performed her ablutions as part of a salubrious and languid ritual we might all enjoy after a hard day.
I don’t know Churchill’s work from a hole in the wall. But he knew his business. He showed us a person, and an appealing idea, and intimated to us something about himself too, by the composition of the painting and its subject. And he gave us the gift of understanding another person’s point of view, and perhaps seeing something of ourselves in it; something familiar but interesting.
She has no telephone. No radio. No television. The candle on the table might be for more than mood lighting. She could catch polio. Her dentist might work on horses too.
None of that matters when she was captured there by the window. We all need what she’s got. A cushy spot to rest our bones. Something to occupy our mind. Time to yourself. A little privacy. A little elegance.
Same as it ever was.