In the booming 1880s, in big houses after dinner, while the ladies freshened up, gentlemen allowed themselves a modicum of down time, an hour, perhaps two, in the library or smoking room, beyond the heavy doors, where the bookshelves were laden and the candlelight was golden and women seldom trod.
What would one do there? One would do what men do when they are at their ease. One would don a smoking jacket, a soft one with a tasseled cord. One would pull a cork, perhaps, or light a favored pipe, or open an old book. "Bachelor still lifes" are paintings of this mellowness.
You don't have to like art to like them. They aren't prissy, for one thing. Bachelor still lifes are male and modest, and really realistic, and as well-made as miniature motors. You have to be equipped with very sharply pointed brushes, a steady hand and exceptional persistence to make such finely detailed paintings well.
In the last quarter of the 19th century, painting bachelor still lifes became a small industry. Claude Raguet Hirst was in the middle of it. Not at the top, in the middle.
There are 35 Hirsts in "Claude Raguet Hirst: Transforming the American Still Life," which exaggerates their importance. Hirst didn't invent the bachelor still life. Lots of people painted them, and this required, most of all, rigorous, reliable obedience to convention. The exhibition is on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts because Claude was born Claudine. Among notable professional bachelor-still-life painters, she may have been the only woman.
Her pictures show: Half-burnt matches, meerschaum pipes, old books tumbled here and there, brass candlesticks, stemmed glasses -- clues to a whole world. Some of those old volumes include writings by women. Nonetheless, Hirst's library remains a men's preserve. Ashes have been spilled. Here that doesn't matter. It's like the study at 221B Baker St. when Dr. Watson met with Holmes.
Such maleness was fashionable. In the 1880s, a shiver of the macho ran right through the culture. 1881: The artist Frederic Remington first heads for the West. 1882: A dirty little coward guns down Jesse James, who becomes a sort of hero. 1883: Soft young Theodore Roosevelt leaves New York for the Dakotas; the painter Winslow Homer moves to far-away Prout's Neck on the rocky coast of Maine. 1885: Mark Twain publishes "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." This current carried with it detective stories, cowboys, books of boys' adventures and bachelor still lifes, too.
At this moment, Claude Hirst in New York abruptly changes course. Henceforth she will specialize in bachelor still lifes, pictures of a kind she had never done before.
Why? Well, here's one reason: In 1886, William M. Harnett, inventor of the fashion, whose success was undeniable, whose pipes and books were wonderful, took a studio on 14th Street in Manhattan. Hirst lived two doors away.
Table-top still lifes were, by then, a staple of American art. These factual, unfanciful life-size little paintings were clearly Dutch in precedent and acceptable to Protestants. Most showed fruits or flowers. They were pictures of God's bounty. Skilled, productive artists -- most notably the many Peales of Philadelphia -- had been painting them in numbers since the end of the last century. Hirst had been producing them since she was a girl.
Claudine Hirst was born in Cincinnati in 1855. She'd been signing herself "Claude" since 1872. It may have been a nickname. It also sounded sort of French and had an arty ring.
Before Harnett moved in, Hirst had made herself an expert in fruit-and-flower still lifes. Half a dozen are on view. But after he arrived, she gave up fuzzy peaches, chrysanthemums and pansies, and started painting pipes and books very much like his. "A Bachelor's Solace" and "Crumbs of Comfort" and "A Favorite Pipe" were the titles of her pictures the next time she showed.
That Harnett's example changed her seems obvious. The evidence is circumstantial but strong. Just look at their art.
Martha M. Evans, this exhibition's curator, will have none of it, however. That Claude Hirst is a follower, rather than a leader, is immediately apparent, but art historian Evans won't accept the obvious. Bending over backward until her forehead touches the floor, she prefers to describe Claude Hirst -- that most painstaking and cautious and rule-accepting painter -- as a secret sort of rebel who overthrew conventions and subverted male art.
How did Hirst pull off this notable transgression, previously unrecognized? Very subtly, indeed -- by placing references to women in her male works of art.
For instance: About 1901, Hirst completed a little bachelor still life called, quite characteristically, "A Bookworm's Table." The familiar male mess is there -- see the ashes on the tabletop. The briar pipe that spilled them -- not a woman's surely -- is right there as well. Also in the painting are nine small beat-up books.
The volume that most matters -- it's the only one that's open and the only one that's sunlit -- is a copy of the memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte. Conqueror, killer, emperor -- isn't he a guy's guy? Not to Martha Evans. There's a Shakespeare on the table, but since he is a male, the curator ignores it. There's also a book called "Reveries." She ignores that one, too. What seizes her attention is a volume to its left, "Memoirs of Madame de Remusat." The curator has found a woman in the picture, or, at last, a woman's name. This is what she runs with. Remusat, she writes, has been "identified by [unnamed] recent scholars as a 'protofeminist.' " "Many readers," she adds (though it can't be very many), "also might have recalled that Remusat's memoirs were often critical of the emperor . . . making Hirst's composition all the more subversive."
Hirst's "Poems of William Cowper" seems a bachelor still life, too. It's got a pipe and a burnt match, and a male in its title, and a book of Shakespeare's plays, but Evans will not buy it. She sees all this as "ironic." This painstaking, unthreatening tobacco-scented work is really protofeminist. Evans will tell you why. She has read the Cowper dialogue cited in the open book and thinks its men speak "foolishly." That's enough for Evans. "Hirst's choice of the specific text," writes Evans, "juxtaposed with the surrounding objects, alludes to the absurdity of male chivalry." Oh.
Lots of skillful men painted macho still lifes -- Harnett first and foremost, and then the excellent John Frederick Peto, and Nicholas Alden Brooks, George Cope, Richard La Barre Goodwin, Charles A. Meurer, John Haberle and many more. Claude Hirst fits easily among them. She's as patient as her colleagues and as good at painting pipes, and her brushes are as small.
One way that she differs from most of them is that she often worked in water-soluble gouache, not only in oil. This, writes Evans, "further contributed to her privileging of a female sensibility" because, I guess, watercolor is really a woman's medium. That Winslow Homer used it to show Adirondack fishermen, or tough guys shooting deer, is irrelevant to Evans, whose heavy ideology does much to squash the lightness, the twinkling good nature, of the paintings in her show.
Their details are sharp. They are never over-arty. They're convivial and humble and clear in their intentions. They'd look neat in the den.
Hirst showed her paintings often but never hit it big. In 1901 she married the painter William C. Fitler. He died just 10 years later. Hirst was 87 when she died -- in poverty, at Bellevue Hospital -- in 1942. The New York Water Color Club, the Artist's Fellowship and the Artist's Fund Society shared the expenses of her burial.
Her skill merits praise. So, too, do her quiet wit and her perseverance. She was a good trompe l'oeil technician. But Evans overrates. Hirst was a minor painter. She didn't transform American still life. She was too timid in her moves, and too subservient to her genre, to be major in any way.
Claude Raguet Hirst: Transforming the American Still Life will remain at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW, through Dec. 19. The exhibition was organized by the Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio. Admission is $5 for adults and $3 for seniors and students. Persons 18 and under will be admitted free. For information call 202-783-5000.