Fripp, Alfred Downing
Watercolor and graphitel on paper
22 5/16 x 20 3/4 inches
Wichita Art Museum, Museum purchase, Friends of the Wichita Art Museum, History of Art Fund
Not Currently on Display
About the Artwork
This charming Victorian watercolor painting titled A Reverie was executed in 1850 by the eminent British artist Alfred Downing Fripp and portrays a beautiful young Irish peasant woman rocking her infant asleep in a wicker cradle. Here, the setting is the interior of a small rough-hewn stone cottage with wooden rafters, a wooden doorjamb and a stone slab floor.
Fripp’s technique is quite remarkable. His drawing is meticulously refined yet spontaneous and the subtle chiaroscuro, which he employs lends drama to his composition. Textural variations such as the flesh-like quality of the young woman’s hands and face, the soft folds of her blue overskirt and the wicker of the cradle are skillfully and convincingly rendered.
Compositionally, the work is of much interest and quite typical of Fripp’s fluid manner. Here the focus of attention is clearly on the mother and the child in the cradle, sharply illuminated by the light pouring into the cottage through the wide-open door at the right. Touches of genre further enliven the work, as for example the spinning wheel and the toppled wooden stool with its three legs jutting outward toward us. But the surrounding space is treated with only just enough detail to establish an appropriate setting without competing with the intended central theme of mother and child. Moreover, the composition is largely saturated with rich warm tones, which seem to rise to a climax in the red of the kerchief tied around the young mother’s head, thereby emphasizing the focal theme again and at the same time imparting unity to the composition as a whole.
Threatened by the social changes that accompanied rapidly spreading industrialization during the 19th century, many British artists looking to the past through a golden haze resorted to sweet and tender sentiment as a vehicle for extolling the joys and virtues of the simple uncorrupted life such as that suggested here. At the same time, it is interesting to note in this composition that while this painting portrays a mother and child, we are tempted at first glance to read the work as a nativity scene. And this throws light on another aspect of the period, namely the not infrequent tendency by the middle of the 19th century to secularize the traditional religious image in art, thereby pointing up a degree of ambiguity widely experienced in the Victorian period and recorded in many of the works of that period. Yet, even with the religious overtones suggested by the tiny rosary and cross dangling from the hood of the crib, when we investigate this work closely, we readily conclude that it was intended more as a secular than a religious scene. For the artist’s care in describing the young mother’s overskirt in a deep blue that is repeated in a segment of the nearby blue sea glimpsed through the open door at the right suggests some association between the woman and the sea itself. This suggestion is reinforced by the presence of what appears to be fine fishing nets bound and tied around the vertical wooden post at the left and lead us to speculate freely that this is a fishing cottage and that the mother is the young wife of a fisherman.
Alfred Downing Fripp was born in Bristol in 1822, and in 1840 settled in London where he studied at the British Museum and the Royal Academy. In 1844 he was elected an associate of the Royal Society of Painters in Watercolors and in 1846 a full member. Some of his most important works were executed during visits to Ireland and to Italy where he lived from 1850 to 1854. Fripp died in London in 1895.