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The Odd Couple: Hollowell and Melchers

On the surface, these works make for odd bedfellows. Gari Melchers presents an austere vision of Mrs. Henriette Hitchcock (The Embroideress [ca. 1889]) dressed in a black gown, whereas Loie Hollowell brings an explosion of color and texture to her painting Mother’s Milk (2018). Looking at these two paintings, there seems to be very little in common between them. It seems as if they shouldn’t share wall space, much less a highly coveted 500-word blog post. And yet, here we are.

A common refrain at Crystal Bridges is that we want viewers to look beyond that top layer in order to draw connections between works. Here that connection could be something as simple as both artists having artistic fathers–which is true. But I think we can dig deeper than that.

Gari Melchers, The Embroideress [Portrait of Mrs. Hitchcock], ca. 1889, oil on canvas, 35 1/2 × 21 3/4 in., Courtesy Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas. Photography by Dwight Primiano.

Melchers loved detail. The lace on Mrs. Hitchcock’s cuff is immaculate, and the bluish veins on her hand create a stunning illusion of modeled perfection. Illusion happens with Hollowell’s painting, too. It’s hard to see digitally, but there is a series of valleys and hills protruding from the painting surface at least an inch thick. And while Hollowell paints some shadows and highlights, the work’s terrain combined with gallery lighting gives us moments where you’ll question whether the effects are “real” or a bit of playful deception.

 

It’s this balance between the identifiable and mysterious that also gives us the painting’s subject. While at first glance it may appear as just an abstraction, the curving form on the left is Hollowell’s own breast, secreting a brilliantly glowing substance. The title, Mother’s Milk, affirms her subject matter—this painting is one entry in a series of works Hollowell created as a way to explore her changing body as a site of both creation and sustenance during her pregnancy.

Loie Hollowell, Mother’s Milk, 2018, oil, acrylic medium, sawdust, and high-density foam on linen mounted on panel, 48 × 36 × 3 in., Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, 2019.1. Photography by Edward C. Robison III. 

It’s that thread of mystery that again brings us back to Mrs. Hitchcock—who may not appear to be hiding anything. But look again at the peculiar black dress she’s wearing. Elegant, perfectly painted, but also one that is decidedly not form-fitting at a time when corsets were all the rage. In fact, it’s a style of dress whose flowing form allows for greater comfort to the expectant mother wearing it. Melchers’s friend donned this nineteenth-century maternity dress a couple months into her pregnancy when posing for this likeness.

So you see—different, but similar. I love these types of connections between works—odd couples scattered across centuries.

Take some time to admire these paintings and think about the journey of motherhood that both paintings are addressing. And while any number of things could be keeping you apart from the mothers in your life right now, not just quarantines or the distance between galleries, I hope this post is a gentle reminder that we can often find connection, even in unlikely circumstances.

From all of us here at the museum, Happy Mother’s Day.

 

Written by Alejo Benedetti, associate curator, contemporary art, Crystal Bridges.

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