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‘War’ – 1883
As to what conflict, or indeed what date said battle would be taking place, Merritt leaves us ignorant. ‘War’ rather focuses on the two eternal participants of combat: those who become directly involved, and those watching that they leave behind.
All the women here are exquisitely imagined, with terrific detail to their clothing and manner. An anonymous duo on the right corner perch in from the edge of the frame, one curious for further information, the other tight lipped with eyes glazed over, presumably watching the signalled march trounce further off into the horizon. The woman they stand behind is particularly well realised, her face a visage of trouble and tense worry. Perhaps she herself has some implications in allowing the men to leave, her fingers clasped tight around an ornate mysterious key.
At the left a redhead whose dress is of a fantastic depth, draws attention to the soldiers trudging off down below, the key holder in the centre however clearly already too aware of this. When these passing men become noticed by the viewer, it creates an interesting dissonance within the image, with our eyes being pulled between the forceful progress at ground level, and the emotional distress it causes up above, unseen to the men. Unbeknownst to both, a child looks away between the upset women, hers perhaps the greatest tragedy as this world of war is one she must grow up within.
The lack of concrete information within ‘War’ signals a universal nature to the occasion, with other bystanders such as those featured here being visible outside on a left-hand window. More than 130 years after this image has been painted, the same conclusions can be ruefully drawn. We, like the centrepiece onlookers here, can but helplessly watch on from the sidelines of history as war continues to move through and march over.
‘Love Locked Out’ – 1890
Made in memory of a husband who died but three months into their marriage, Merritt here contemplates the insurmountable nature of death, painting herself as Cupid pushing up in vain against the door of a mausoleum. Delicate evocation of the child aside, there is much to admire in the composition of the painting, with the roses arching up above the would be entrant, their vines mimicking in their eternal ache, the same yearnings of the boy.
There is a naturalness to the entirety of the proceedings, from the gently toppled pot at the foot of the stare, to the nude figure standing atop it. Everything comes in grinned golden hues, with the striking nature of the image allowing it to be both memorable and entrancing.
Writing just after the painting was made, Merritt reflected on her percieved importance of companionship to the act of creation:
“The chief obstacle to a woman’s success is that she can never have a wife. Just reflect what a wife does for an artist: Darns the stockings; keeps his house; writes his letters; visits for his benefit; wards off intruders; is personally suggestive of beautiful pictures; always an encouraging and partial critic. It is exceedingly difficult to be an artist without this time-saving help. A husband would be quite useless.”
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