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Watrous, Henry - VM - William R. Cross

Harry Watrous: The Drop Sinister

After Our Likeness

by William R. Cross

On its face, the scene is sentimental: a respectable family of three, in a tidy, sunlit room. Look closer. The silhouetted mother’s arm is tense, her fingers tight on table’s edge. She stares transfixed in alarm, likely at the contents of the letter before her. A toddler daughter looks up to her in wide-eyed, solemn fear. And the girl’s father? He stares at us, the viewers. He is musing as he reads his newspaper. His glasses are off, his slippers are on. A hint of understanding flashes across his handsome face – as if he knows a hard truth and has made his peace with it. The enigmatic painting’s title draws us, too, into that truth. The family at the table is both white and black. By the cruel classifications of the time, anyone – even a little blonde girl – through whose blood runs the “drop sinister” is counted as black.

Harry W. Watrous (1857-1940) created this work in New York in 1913. Then, as now, men and women wrestled silently and aloud with a tender topic: identity. A prominent art critic, Joseph Edgar Chamberlin, called The Drop Sinister one of “those problem pictures which sometimes move the forces of modern life more powerfully than books or speeches do.” Watrous casts the child at the center of the narrative into which we, the viewers, step. We cannot help but place ourselves in this room with this little girl and her parents.

W.E.B. DuBois (1868-1963), the pioneering civil rights activist, author and editor, stood before this painting in awe, wonder, and understanding. He wrote that all three figures in the picture are “colored:”

That is to say the ancestors of all of them two or three generations ago numbered among them full-blooded Negroes. These ‘colored’ folk married and brought to the world a little golden-haired child; today they pause for a moment and sit aghast when they think of this child’s future.What is she? A Negro?
No, she is ‘white.’
But is she white?
The United States Census says she is a ‘Negro.’
What earthly difference does it make what she is, so long as she grows up a good, true, capable woman? But her chances for doing this are small!
Why?
Because 90,000,000 of her neighbors, good, Christian, noble, civilized people, are going to insult her, seek to ruin her and slam the door of opportunity in her face the moment they discover ‘The Drop Sinister’.

The painting’s drama reflects the tragic particularities of American history. But all people, in all places, seek answers to an underlying question: who are you? And so we may ask: who is this man who casts his eye on us? Who is his wife? Who is his daughter or who will she become?  Watrous’ manner is so beguilingly light that we may doubt the gravity of his query. 

He offers clues but does not force them upon us. The newspaper in the husband’s hand is The Christian. The collar he wears is that of a pastor. And the inscription over his fireplace is from the first chapter of the book on his table. It is the statement of God’s intention as recorded in Genesis 1:26: “And God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.’” 

Where may we find identity? For DuBois and for the man at this table identity is much more than race. It is found in being made in the image of God, the Imago Dei. That likeness is particular, rooted in a specific place and a specific time. The Incarnation, through which Christ is born, is the scandalous meeting of divinity and history. The description in the Gospel of Luke (3:1) is as specific as GPS coordinates. Abraham Lincoln, whose image is on the wall, was a particular person too – and so were every man, woman and child whom he freed in signing the Emancipation Proclamation. 

And so is each of us, particular, unique. And yet . . . this likeness is universal too. The very next verse of Genesis is: “And so God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” In some way we now can only glimpse darkly – and will one day fully comprehend – the family of man is one.

At the time that Watrous made this painting, only 11 U.S. states had repealed their laws prohibiting marriage between whites and blacks.  Until the late 1960s, many states still defined people by race in ways that today we recognize as absurd. In this enigmatic picture Watrous illuminated such tragic absurdities. But today, more than a century later, where do each of us find identity?  What does it mean that we too are made after the image of God? As this new year of hope begins, may each of us discover in the likeness of our maker who we really are. 

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Harry W. Watrous: The Drop Sinister: What Shall We Do With It?, 1913, oil on canvas, 37 x 50 ¼”.  Portland Museum of Art, Portland, Maine, USA, Gift of the artist.

Harry Willson Watrous (1857–1940) was an American painter, best known for his landscapes, still-life and genre pictures. He was born in San Francisco to wealthy parents who raised him primarily in New York and encouraged his exposure to an emerging class of patrons and a community of other artists.  He obtained an academic style of instruction in France at the Académie Julian and in the studio of Léon Bonnat (1833-1922). At 30 he married Elizabeth Snowden Nichols (1858-1921), an author and artist who had studied in Paris herself, under Charles Carolus-Duran.  They lived together, childless, in New York with his mother through her death at 88 in 1914.  Watrous achieved renown as a specialist in cleverly composed small genre pictures. Then, due to an illness of the eye in 1905, from necessity he created larger pictures, many of them landscapes inspired by his friend Ralph Blakelock (1847-1919). He also depicted beautiful young women posed in settings of ambiguous narrative.  After the death of his wife Watrous began the final phase of his career, carefully composing still-life paintings rich in color and obsessive detail. He died in New York, alone but celebrated, and is now almost completely forgotten. The Drop Sinister is his most-recognized work, often described as the first American depiction of an interracial family.  Under circumstances now lost to history he donated it to the Portland Museum of Art shortly after the museum opened; it is now one of the best-loved works in the museum’s collection – both by visitors and staff.

William R. Cross is the author of American Periscope: Winslow Homer, a biography of the painter Winslow Homer (1836-1910), which Farrar, Straus & Giroux will publish in April 2022.  He writes a weekly column on art and the gospel for his fellow parishioners at Christ Church, Hamilton, Massachusetts, USA.

ArtWay Visual Meditation 24 January 2021