Aunt Coffin's Art

To a small boy’s eyes Aunt Coffin was both fusty and formidable. She was of short speech and small amiability, and she wore a manner of widow’s weeds perpetually. She was emphatically what a steamer girl once described to me as ‘a black-silk aunt,’ but very dowdy silk. It had been impossible to domicile her amid her aging and aged brothers and sisters who lived in dignity up at the family farm, so she boarded below in the village, as a dreaded pensioner. However, she felt her rights in the homestead to be intact, and from time to time, by way of asserting these rights, she raided the silver basket and even the ice box. Much had to be borne from Aunt Coffin.

But she had, as you choose to put it, her silver lining or her comic relief. She painted. In their teens several ladies of the family had painted flowers or copied landscapes, but Aunt Coffin practised this worldly accomplishment in extreme old age. Shut up in her air-tight room, she composed out of her head the strangest pictures — odd poesies, quite indecent in a woman of her years; and, unpardonable habit in a dependent, she painted expensively, fairly modeling her hills and trees and persons in the pigment. Her paint bill for a season would have gone far toward renewing the fusty widow’s weeds. But Aunt Coffin, caring everything for the appearance of her pictures, cared just nothing for her own appearance — hence was an eyesore to her neat and godly sisters at Maple Green, up on the hill. As for her painting, it was the family joke. In rare expansive moments she bestowed a well-loaded canvas on some kinsman or kinswoman. After a reasonable delay, it joined the foot warmers and spinning wheels in the attic. But Aunt Coffin depended in no way on appreciation. She painted on until she died in the late eighties. For a few years she remained a grotesque family legend, and then she and her art were forgotten. All this was some fifty years ago.

But not entirely forgotten. In too rare visits to the haunted farm on the hill, I found myself paradoxically remembering outcast Aunt Coffin. What was this art of hers for which she had cared so deeply? Was it after all so ridiculous? One would like to see. So while the œuvre of Aunt Coffin is, I fear, hopelessly scattered and much of it probably even destroyed, I have managed to recover three examples of her painting, and I think them worth a few words of description and appreciation.

The first is an unpretentious little picture. A very blue stream swings across and up the canvas from right to left, broadening to the point where the sails of a heavy sloop cut the horizon. The lower sky is flushed, and there are stray rosy clouds in the blue upper sky. The curve of the stream is balanced by the thrust of a brown road which passes from the left to the strand near the centre, where a skiff is shoving off. Touches of sharp red in the bodices of two women passengers carry forward the note asserted more moderately in the clouds and the pennon of the sloop. There is a great tree with its green beginning to rust to autumnal brown on the left bank, while on the right bank a coppice of such trees cuts impressively into the sky, shadowing two settlers’ houses such as Aunt Coffin could see along her village street. The whole effect is very simple and emphatic, with something of a more colorful Ryder in its suggestion.

Since Aunt Coffin never signed her pictures, nor, as they are most recognizable, needed to sign them, a review of her mannerisms may be useful to the amateur of her art. It should be admitted that the generalization is made from three pictures, but memory of the many I saw in childhood makes me confident that the analysis will apply to the work as a whole. In a good and authentic Aunt Coffin a very blue river should occupy the middle space; the lower sky should be rosy and should be reflected in the upper stretch of the stream; there should be tiny floating clouds high up; all greens of grass or foliage should be heavily loaded, apparently squeezed straight from the tube, and much dosed with warm browns and even reds to gain brilliancy. In or near the foreground there should be a fine tree, of maple sort, whose densely fronded top bulges monumentally before the sky, rising to the top of the canvas. The difficult motive of sky seen through foliage is always capitally managed. Skiffs of a punt-like sort are to be expected.

Let us consider a more ambitious Aunt Coffin. The central blue stream is reduced to a bend caught between a bank on which there is a ruin — a glorification of a derelict factory chimney — and a grove where beside a blasted tree graze a white buck and doe. The still water is full of reflections of a skiff, a sailboat, and the farther bank. On the bank beyond is a porticoed and domed structure like the Pantheon, though I fancy it may rather be an excerpt from the Boston State House. From the temple a path follows the river, while two lovers follow the path. Higher, there is a misty hill bearing a castle, — or is it a glorified summer hotel? — which catches the roseate glow from the lower sky. The romance is all carried off, and he whole thing has odd but real affinities with such a masterpiece as Ryder’s ‘Temple of the Mind.’

I adore Aunt Coffin in this unabashed vein of romantic escape from the fustiness of her person and setting and from the superior respectability of her brothers and sisters up at the farm, but I think she is really more impressive when her eye is at least approximately on the object, and I present as her masterpiece a picture which rests solidly on memories of the Connecticut Valley, only a short ten miles away. Seldom enough Aunt Coffin saw this lovely river vale, for her pittance did not run to livery expenses, while she herself was too unlovely a companion to be welcome in the family carryall. Still she had caught the feel and look of the gentle stream as it turns about the foot of some little mountain, and the picture which she painted in her air-tight room has the real truth of the matter. The blue stream is a chevron ending in reflected rose, with a distant blue mountain hanging between rose of river and sky. This is seen through a tangle where a fallen yellow maple is held slantingly by two crimson sugar maples. Dull, conical spruces set off the brilliant hues and rounded forms of the maples from the background. A cliff occupies the river bend at the centre. I see in it a sublimation of Sugar Loaf, opposite Sunderland. Two of the usual skiffs are on the nearer, blue reach of the river. At the right a cloaked rider on a white horse quietly drives two tranquil oxen out of the picture. The beasts are realized with a Blake-like simplicity. The whole composition is large in scale and of a sombre gorgeousness in color.

The red maples glow incandescently from within; the half-fallen yellow maple sings splendidly. Again plenty of paint is the expedient. But it is the right paint, at the right spot, in the right intensity and relations. In short, while it looks easy, I feel that anyone who thought he could do it by simply getting gay with the tubes of vermilion and chrome yellow would be in trouble. Indeed, I am inclined to believe that Aunt Coffin is the only American painter who has really done our autumn foliage. The rest think of it as a color; she thought of it as a conflagration.

I forgot to say at the outset that Aunt Coffin’s baptismal name was Wealthy; that her husband, who soon left her for a better world, was a local poet; and that a daughter achieved within a short life a certain literary accomplishment. Whatever capacity for the arts lay in the family up at the farm was all canalized in Aunt Coffin’s direction. She was born in 1800 and died in 1887. Ryder was just beginning to emerge, and nobody had heard of Rousseau le Douanier. There were no models for Aunt Coffin’s style. It simply shaped itself in homemade fashion as she puttered masterfully in her airtight room. My friends Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More were undergraduates in Aunt Coffin’s last years. So she never had the good chance to know the perils of the romantic escape she was practising. I dare say she would have been surprised to be fold either that she must or that she must not express her soul freely. She did n’t think in such terms. They could n’t stand her on the farm, and she loved to paint. Could she prophetically have read the books of my friends, she might have felt the duty to tidy up, cheer up, and come to an agreement with the brothers and sisters at Maple Green. This, I agree, would have evinced a superior morality on her part, but I am sure that neither she nor they would have had so good a time. They, after all, liked her quaint and at a distance, and she willingly accepted a situation that fitted in nicely with her painting.

As an ironical afterthought to a serious essay — if I could assemble thirty or forty pictures by Aunt Coffin, I would guarantee a cult and the posthumous justification of her Christian name, Wealthy. The sort of art she represented is no longer ridiculous, and of course it was n’t ridiculous at the time. I could wish for Aunt Coffin theoretically possible triumphs in the auction room, if only to perturb in their celestial seats the benignly condescending shades from hilltop Maple Green.