Winslow Homer and the Women of “The New Novel”

The New Novel. Watercolor, 1877.

In 1877, Winslow Homer exhibited his watercolor, The New Novel, at an exhibition of the American Watercolor Society.

It is an image that below its surface of innocent, leisurely repose churns a contemporary cultural scene fraught with change and fear; the culture-war in the U.S. had begun.

“…Avoid also all those miserable sensational…novels and illustrated papers which are so profusely scattered around on every side. The demand which exists for such garbage speaks badly for the moral sense and intellectual training of those who read them…The extent to which the press is used in the publication of romance and fiction, and of books which, if they do not corrupt the heart, do little but to dwarf the mind and give perverted and false views of life – of its duties and responsibilities, transcends any means at our command to ascertain…In nothing perhaps is the taste of our people so lamentably demoralized as in respect to our reading matter” (READ, Rev. Hollis. The God of This World; The Footprints of Satan. 1872).

The New Novel captures the moment and encapsulates its cultural context. This is a young woman languidly lying down on her side, embracing a book as she might a lover, holding it close and dear, almost caressing its binding, her eyes half-lidded in dream-state transport. She is not engaged in “productive” activity at all; she is consumed within an inner life that leaves her unavailable to responsibilities, family, and potential suitors: She’s here but not here, gone into a world unavailable to those closest to her, that of her imagination, a dangerous place for a woman to be in the 1870s. Opening a woman’s mind to imagination was tantamount to opening Pandora’s Box.

This young woman may be going to hell but Winslow Homer is enchanted by her. And why not?

The image crackles with latent sexuality and the eroticism of feminine power. It is a deeply intimate portrait, and Homer seems to spying on her, enjoying the scene as a voyeur enraptured by the young girl’s complete lack of self-consciousness. Her foot emerges from her dress, stretched, cat-like, as if the passage she’s reading requires a physical response. Reading here is a pagan act, a mystic rite performed in a sylvan setting that almost begs for fauns spying upon her from within the background brush.

Considering how low an activity novel reading was considered to be by contemporary social critics, the image borders on soft-core porn:

Novels and Novel-Reading

Definition of a Novel – A Vice of the Age – FOUR MAXIMS:
1. No Fiction if Little Leisure
2. Only the Best
3. Fiction to be but Small Part
4. If any Harm results, Stop at Once!

1. Wastes Time
2. Injures the Intellect
3. Unfits for Real Life
4. Creates Overgrowth of the Passions
5. Produces Mental Intoxication
6. Lessens the Horror of Crime and Wrong
7. Wars with all Piety, Disciplinary Rule.

The preceding public service announcement is found within Popular Amusements by Rev. J.T. Crane (Cincinnati, Hitchcock and Walden, 1869). By these standards, Homer’s new woman reading The New Novel is something of a slut: to the prudes, the “overgrowth of passions” needed to be curbed lest they need to be pruned yet by then, it’s too late.

Sunlight and Shadow. Watercolor, 1872.

The New Novel was not the first time Homer would examine the new phenomenon. Ostensibly a study of light and color values, 1872’s Sunlight and Shadow is a portrait of the new woman of leisure, reading. There is an odalisque-like quality to the image, the young woman alone and utterly relaxed, her legs and dress casually draped over the side of the hammock that swaddles her, and, though fully clothed, in dishabille: A woman at ease with impropriety, visually “loose.”

Girl Reading on a Stone Porch. Watercolor, 1872.

Girl Reading on a Stone Porch, again from 1872, is another example of Homer’s pre-occupation with the reading habits of contemporary young women. Here, the girl is almost reclining in her chair while reading, her posture most unlady-like. She’s holding her book as one might loosely hold a lover’s head around the neck, draw him near, and gaze into his eyes. The image is the antithesis of the contemporary model of prim, modest femininity.

Five years later, Homer’s motif of young woman-reader as model of new womanhood reaches its height with The New Novel. In both Sunlight and Shadow and Girl Reading on a Stone Porch, Homer keeps himself at a distance, an objective, reserved and somewhat chaste observer. In these prior watercolors Homer has not made up his mind about the subject; he is chronicling current events, neither condemning nor approving, merely, if intensely, curious.

Yet Homer is being seduced by the phenomenon of the new novel as his women are: In Porch, the girl is almost carried away by her book but remains seated, her feet on the ground but not firmly. In Sunlight, the girl is reclining yet her legs hang over the side of the hammock; she hasn’t yet completely lost control of herself.

All pretensions to objectivity are dropped, however, with The New Novel; Homer has made up his mind, has a subjective opinion, and his personal interest is palpable. The girl has totally abandoned herself to the passion, her fall is complete; so, too, Homer for the girl. He gets close to his subject, draws as near as he dares without disturbing her, without his voyeurism caught in flagrante. The other two watercolors have a sense of open spaciousness, the act of reading radiating out from the reader to the outside world and viewer. The New Novel reverses this order, drawing viewers inward into the mystery of this woman, her mind, and what might be going on inside of it. Her languid position, dreamy, half-closed eyes and pointed toe suggest a moment of erotic tension.

Winslow Homer has it bad for this woman.

The woman, alas, has it bad for the book.

And so, despite his charged attraction, she is unattainable. And it is that unattainability, that diversion of women from standard cultural roles and social mores toward independence of thought and action that challenged traditional American notions of femininity, the moral status quo, and seized Homer’s imagination and desire.

A woman might prefer the company of a good book to the company of a man; reading as an act of self-pleasure. Irresistible!

The young woman in The New Novel, lost in her novel, her thoughts private, her pose provocative, remains an enigma. The New Novel is Bernini’s The Ecstasy of St. Teresa of Avila meets DaVinci’s Mona Lisa, introduced by Winslow Homer.

Winslow Homer is famous for his landscapes. With his women-reading trilogy, he captures a new landscape, that of the inner world of of the new woman reading The New Novel.


Of related interest: Note To Novel Readers: “If Any Harm Results, Stop at Once!”