Ladies with Letters: Woman in White

Thomas Benjamin Kennington -- blogThe first thing you notice is the layer upon layer of white in this portrait by Thomas Benjamin Kennington; the second is the hair. Or rather at first glance what appears to be a magnificent mountain of hair. It’s actually a hat, some feathery confection that perches on her head like a curled up pet. I wonder about that choice of hat. Everything else is so serene, bright, frothy. Sunlight gilds her letter, the leaves, her cheeks and forehead. Light spills down her dress and pools in her lap. She exists in a spun sugar world of white. Then there’s the hat.

Kennington was born in Grimsby, England, and studied art in the 19th century in Liverpool, London and Paris. He painted not only idealized domestic settings like this, but also scenes of society’s less fortunate with titles like “Homeless” and “Orphans.” To modern eyes, those works appear idealized as well, but they played on the sensibilities of Victorian society. Who knows, perhaps his more socially realistic paintings tugged on corseted heartstrings enough to elicit larger donations for the poor.

And perhaps the hat in this portrait is another nod to realism, a touch of the matter-of-fact to serve as counterpoint to the glowing unreality of the woman in white.

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3 thoughts on “Ladies with Letters: Woman in White

  1. Phoebe Conn says:

    I have another thought. She’s seated by a window. Perhaps the black hat is a signal to her lover who walks by in the street. When he sees her wearing the black hat, it means her husband is either at home, or away. He’d just have to remember which one.

    • Susan Lendroth says:

      You’re going to have a whole story going here, Phoebe. Let’s take it a step further — perhaps she has a different pet-on-her-head hat to wear according to which lover she wants to signal!

  2. Phoebe Conn says:

    I think you may have been right with the curled up pet theory. The black hat is totally wrong for the outfit and the painting. She needs something in a pastel hue, a frothy apricot confection perhaps.

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