Portrait of Florence Pierce
George Bellows, American, 1882–1925
Oil on canvas
38 × 30in. (96.5 × 76.2cm)
Habits of Mind
- OVERCOME FEAR Overcome fear of ambiguity / fear of failure or being wrong / fear of the unknown
- SYNTHESIZE Analyze and synthesize relationships and information / compare and contrast / understand the micro and macro implications
GRADE LEVEL6, 7, 8
SUBJECT AREALanguage Arts
Interpreting the Gray Area
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
Connecting to the Work of Art
Painted with thick, rapidly-applied brushstrokes and heavy contrasts of lights and darks, Portrait of Florence Pierce creates a moody, introspective representation of the sitter. Set in a dark interior, one half of the woman’s face is consumed by shadow, while the other half reflects a harsh, white light. The juxtaposition of light and shadow hides half of her facial features while exaggerating her heavy eye lid and the sharp creases under her left eye. Despite its contradictions and ambiguities, this portrait is an example of the compositional and stylistic experimentation of George Bellows, who combined the ideas of modern European art with the emerging identity of “American” art in the early 20th century.
The intense cobalt blue used in the sitter’s dress creates a strong contrast to the paleness of the sitter’s skin. The yellow, green, and deep purple vertical stripes that emerge from the blackness of shadow do not reveal any facts about the woman’s setting and instead add to the ambiguous tone of the work. A feeling of remote distance is furthered by a lack of setting and the figure’s alert and direct stare, ridged composure, and faint, tight smile. The blocky, geometric composition and flat plane of cool colors further makes the subject appear tired or frail.
Little is known about Bellows’ sitter, Florence (“Flossie”) Pierce; this portrait, unlike more traditional portraits that reveal sitters’ personality or social standing, does not tell viewers much. She was the daughter of a lighthouse keeper and a resident of Monhegan Island, Maine—where Bellows also stayed during the summer of 1914. Although the painting does not provide many concrete details about her personality or social standing, what historians do know about her is loosely represented here. The intense lighting is reminiscent of lighthouse beams. In addition, the sense of isolation may represent the loneliness of island life.
Bellows’ experimental execution may have been influenced by his assistance with and viewing of the New York Armory Show a year earlier. This groundbreaking exhibition, which brought works from the great European modernists to America for the first time, shocked audiences and stimulated artists. This portrait’s bright blocks of color, strong frontal lighting, geometric composition, and flatness are all influenced by this new modern style.
With a keen eye and a modern flare, Bellows made a name for himself by realistically painting American life during the early 20th century in New York City as a member of the Ashcan school, a group of artists that aimed to portray the gritty difficulties of contemporary urban life with vigor and honesty.
- Describe the stark and bright figure of the woman in relation to the dark background. How does the artist emphasize certain elements through light and shadows?
- What is the relationship between the sitter’s face and the light?
- Compare this painting to more traditional portraits. How is it similar? How is it different?
- How would this work be different if more of the background was included?
- What artistic elements does the artist include to emphasize the sitter’s face?
- Does the sitter appear young and vibrant, or tired and frail? What elements in the composition lead you to your interpretation?
- Which words would you use to describe the tone of this work?
- Discuss the artist’s use of color. Would you describe the colors as intense or muted? How does color help to add to the tone of the work?
- How does the artist add a sense of vibrancy to this otherwise sullen scene?
- Discuss how the artist prevents viewers from gathering contextual clues. Consider the background and lack of details.
- Despite the fact that the artist features the name of the sitter within the title, how does he prevent viewers from connecting with the sitter? Does the inclusion of her name as the title change your interpretation of this work?
- The artist was a member of the Ashcan School, a group of artists that aimed to depict the life around them with vigor and honesty. How does the artist depict the woman with vigor and honesty?
- How does the artist create a feeling of isolation within the work?
- We do know that the sitter was the daughter of a lighthouse keeper. How could this painting be related to the loneliness that can come with living on an island?
- Do you think the contractions and ambiguities within this work are more of an artistic experiment with composition, or an attempt to represent the personality of the subject? Justify your answer using evidence from the painting.
Connecting to the Classroom
- Have students list the various details of the painting without trying to interpret those details.
- What contrasts do you notice in this painting? Why do you think the artist chose contrast to depict this woman?
- What is the artist’s relationship to the person in the portrait? Is it personal or professional, and why do you think so? After explaining to students that this is the artist’s sister, ask whether that existing knowledge changes any interpretation, using “text” support.
- What is the mood of this piece? What relationship does the artist hope to create between the subject of the painting and the viewer? Why do you think so?
- Is the painting realistic? If not, why do you think so?
- Have students write a “character sketch” of Florence Pierce.
- Draft a storyboard in which Ms. Pierce is one of the characters.
- WORD CHOICE: Students can make lists of adjectives that would describe Ms. Pierce’s character as depicted in the painting.
- For practice in use of quotation marks, students could draft a scene between Ms. Pierce and her brother. The two are at the family dinner table, discussing whether the painting should be hung at home, whether it is a flattering portrait, etc. The conversation should show the relationship between the siblings.
- Write a “literary” analysis of the subject, commenting on the relationship between artist and subject.
- TEXT STRUCTURE: Have students write a compare/contrast essay comparing this portrait to another, such as Picasso’s Seated Woman, the Portrait of a Nobleman, etc.
Subject Matter Connection
A student who is accomplished in language arts needs to feel liberated to express himself or herself freely. Much of literature analysis is a “gray area” open to various interpretations; what matters is that students have the ability to overcome the fear of that ambiguity and the fear of failure so that they can critically evaluate works of literature in depth. Similarly, various literature genres–such as fantasy or science fiction–ask readers to stretch basic beliefs. By analyzing this Portrait of Florence Pierce, students can practice analysis where more than one answer could be accurate based on existing prior knowledge regarding this work.
Resources Available to Order
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All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.