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Home | Articles | Winslow Homer's Rab and the Girls: A Riddle in Paint

Fig. 1: Rab and the Girls, 1875. Oil on canvas, 20 x 36 inches. Courtesy of James M. Cowan Collection, The Parthenon, Nashville, Tennessee.

Winslow Homer’s Rab and the Girls acquired its present title at some point between 1876, when it was exhibited as Over the Hills at the National Academy of Design, and 1879, when art critic Earl Shinn encountered the painting in the New York collection of Charles Stewart Smith and wrote admiringly of the two “handsome girls” with their trusted canine attendant, “Rab” (Fig. 1). It is not clear whether Homer himself changed the title or if it was Smith’s idea (the painting’s first owner). This in turn raises the question of how much significance we should place on extraneous cues, such as the title, to narrate the painting.1

Without being sure of the current title’s origin, what can we make of Homer’s meaning in the literary allusions and legible symbols woven into the composition? To what extent do all the elements of design—form, arrangement, color, and tone—amplify or perhaps even constitute the painting’s “story”? And, with any combination of these elements, how much of a story does Rab and the Girls have to tell?2

Fig. 2: Autumn, 1877. Oil on canvas, 38 1/4 x 24 3/16 inches. ©1999 Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1985.64.22 (PA). Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon; photography by Richard Carafelli.

To a certain point, the painting functions efficiently as a simple pictorial narrative. It is twilight, and the sun has just sunk behind a shadowy ridge. In the foreground, two young women walking through a lush, green meadow appear. Although both wear nearly identical hats, they otherwise exhibit a calculated contrast. The woman on the left is blond and gloved; she wears a dark jacket and skirt. Her companion has brown hair coiled above the nape of her neck, bare hands, and a light-colored outfit. The blond holds up a four-leaf clover for her friend to see; the brown-haired girl carries a spray of vivid, autumnal maple foliage. The focus of the girls’ complete attention, the emerald-green clover, precisely marks the central axis of the canvas, while the smoldering orange of the leaves below accentuates this dividing line. The other actor in Homer’s composition is a mastiff. Fiercely alert, ears cocked forward, and tail aloft, the dog dominates the foreground as if blocking access to the space and figures behind.

So far, the pictorial narrative is reasonably straightforward. The blond beauty in her elegant appliquéd jacket is a winner: The clover she has discovered will bring her luck and quite possibly love. In New England folklore, a young woman who ate a four-leaf clover or placed it in her shoe would discover her husband in the first unmarried man she met. Such an outcome, of course, may or may not backfire; what could assure that she would encounter a prince and not a pig herder? No such dark premonitions seem to be lurking here, however. The girl on the right contemplates the lucky sprig with a pensive attitude. Those autumn leaves dangling from her hand connote her status as a loser in life and love, destined to wither on the bough. Elements in the background also reinforce the story. On the hilltop near the upper right-hand corner is a bare, dead sapling. On the blonde’s side, by contrast, a bird soars in the lavender-flushed sky. The canvas, then, appears to be split evenly down the middle, with all the luck and love on the one side and all the loss and loneliness on the other.3

We may see Rab as a visual roadmark of sorts, standing at a midway point between the detailed, legible narratives of Homer’s earlier years and the compositional economy, abstraction, and ambiguity that increasingly distinguished his work by the late 1870s. In Rab and the Girls, Homer deployed readable symbols—the lucky green clover and the dying leaves—but incorporated them into a design that pits the left side against the right in a carefully calibrated play of opposites. In an analogous way, Rab hangs in the balance between residual old and emergent new devices, at the precise midpoint of the 1870s, an all-important decade for Homer. It was during these years that he matured into a strong, original painter of modern American life. By the end of the seventies, however, he had all but abandoned these subjects and stood poised to make a move into new, riskier territory.

In discussing the dynamics of Rab and the Girls, there is one more player to take into account, and that, of course, is the figure of the so-called “Rab,” the huge, brown mastiff who looks directly into our eyes. His alert presence further charges the precarious equilibrium of the picture. Although the two girls disregard their animal companion, he demands our notice. Even within the picture, he attracts attention: diagonals generated by the hat brims, the tilt of the dark girl’s head, and the cant of the blond girl’s forearm as she holds up her lucky clover all converge on the dog’s rugged head.

Fig. 3: Woman Peeling a Lemon, 1876. Watercolor over sketch in black chalk, 18 7/8 x 12 inches. Courtesy of Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

Who had the inspiration to name this dog “Rab”? Was it Homer himself, or Charles Stewart Smith, or some chance admirer who made the connection between the painted
mastiff and one of the most famous canines in nineteenth-century English literature? John Brown (1810–1882), a Scottish doctor and man of letters, published the story of Rab and His Friends in pamphlet form in 1858. Soon after, it was reissued in a collection of Brown’s occasional papers and went on to tremendous popular success, with numerous editions and reprints in Britain, Europe, and America.4

Brown’s tale is a memoir of his youth and early days in medicine, when he encountered the dog Rab and his master, James, a hard-bitten yet simple and good-hearted peasant. Scarred from a hundred battles, Rab is a “compressed Hercules of a dog,” having the “dignity and simplicity of great size.” He has a “large, heavy, menacing, combative, somber, honest countenance,” a “deep inevitable eye,” and a look “as of thunder asleep, but ready.” Rab’s behavior is fully consistent with the lore of the English mastiff. An ancient breed, mastiffs are reputed to be so gentle that children might ride on their backs, yet let any stranger threaten master or household, these dogs will attack with great ferocity. The mastiff’s horrible face is only a mask, concealing the most faithful and loving nature.5

Rab’s appearance in Homer’s painting is significant. We cannot know whether the artist was thinking about the original when he composed this picture or indeed whether the dog was an afterthought.6 Whatever the case, John Brown’s Rab was so well known at the time that the name had acquired an indelible association with the breed. The mastiff, soulful eyes staring into ours, is at once guardian and counterfoil of the girls, who play beauties to his beast. Low, brutish, and dumb, he highlights their refinement and delicacy. At the same time, he is more vividly immediate than the nameless young women so oblivious to everything but that sprig of clover. The dog imports reference to a popular literary narrative into the picture. This once again raises the questions of how the story is told and whether design works with, against, or in spite of the presumed script.

The essence of Homer’s multilevel ambiguity is that there can be no concrete answer to such questions. Still, it is worth considering further the extent to which purely pictorial decisions preoccupied the painter, who may have tacked on a few scraps of story only to draw attention to the complexity and boldness of his formal experimentation. Homer’s composition is at bottom schematic in the extreme, relying on spatial compression, abstract geometrical relations, and carefully calibrated patterns of hue and value. The layout is governed by triangulations: the slant (or hypotenuse) of the ridge behind; the three-point configuration set up by the four-leaf clover and the girls’ gazing eyes; and the right triangle of which the hypotenuse is the line from the lucky clover to the space between Rab’s glowing eyes. The girls are solidly painted, yet convey the effect of two silhouettes, a dark and a light, against a band of green and a wedge of brown.

In addition, the painting furnishes a textbook example of Homer’s systematic use of what art historian Nicolai Cikovsky has dubbed “interchangeable parts,” suggesting an industrial approach to design commensurate with the artist’s early training in the world of commercial illustration. It is almost as if Homer selected elements from various bins and tried them out in various combinations and for various reasons.7 The young woman in Autumn (Fig. 2) and the adolescent boy in Gathering Autumn Leaves (ca. 1873) dangle the same branch of orange-red maple leaves in the same manner as does the girl with Rab. The figure in Autumn also wears the same brown velvet jacket with the distinctive gold braid appliqué.

The light-colored bodice worn by the leaf carrier frequently reappears in other works. It is worn by the model in Woman Peeling a Lemon (1876) (Fig. 3), Backgammon (1877; The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco), and Butterflies (1878; New Britain Museum of American Art, Connecticut). In each of these, the bodice remains white, but the trim color varies: dusty terra cotta in Lemon, delicate blue-gray in Backgammon, and solid black in Butterflies.

Such appearances and reappearances strongly suggest that Homer owned this bodice (as well as the velvet jacket and the ruffled, conical hat) in his collection of “props” used on various models over the span of several years. It is unlikely that he had a set of them with trim in different colors. Rather, the costume itself was like a blank canvas on which the painter could try out selected color combinations in indoor and outdoor light, at various times of day. It seems like a kind of artistic shell game: Which one is the real bodice, in its true colors?8

We can get a little closer to the painter’s game by comparing the bodices in Woman Peeling a Lemon and Rab and the Girls. What we see is surely the same garment: white with reddish trim, in both. However, they are strikingly different visually, with the bodice in Lemon a creamy white under an even indoor light, and as noted, a dusty terra cotta of medium value for the trim. When we compare the colors of the same top in Rab and the Girls, Homer’s interest is revealed. Here, the garment is a dull, pallid bluish-gray, and the trim is a muddy brownish-red: transformations affected by dim outdoor light, at twilight, when evening shadows deepen imperceptibly until all color finally disappears. The dress is not gray, but the fact that it looks gray is a key to Homer’s intense fascination with relativism. He recognized that no hue or value is absolute but can change almost infinitely, depending on conditions of viewing, quality and kind of light, and presence of tones and colors around it.

Homer was profoundly affected by his study of the French chemist M. E. Chevreul’s Laws of the Contrast of Colour (first published in 1839), which he owned in a translation given to him in 1860 by his brother Charles. There is ample evidence that Homer methodically worked his way through Chevreul’s equally methodical text, which detailed every possible variation and combination of color and their effects.9

Finally, there is the question of pairing. Although many of Homer’s early and late paintings are multifigural, he returned again and again to the simple but often dynamic binarism of the couple. Homer’s earliest work, especially his illustrations, often feature social groupings of young women and men, flirting, picnicking, playing croquet, ice-skating, and dancing. Throughout the 1870s, in both farm and beach scenes, Homer continued to depict boys and girls or men and women together. Yet by the early 1880s, men and women in Homer’s paintings existed in separate worlds. On rare occasions, they dramatically came together again, as in The Life Line (1884; Philadelphia Museum of Art) and Undertow (1886; Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts), in which daring men pull helpless women from dangerous seas. In most cases, however, they remained apart, working and communing, and even dancing with others of their sex, as in Homer’s A Summer Night (1890; Musée d’Orsay, Paris) with its two women twirling in a close embrace by the shore of the moonlit sea. Rab and the Girls occupies an important point in this continuum, midway between the sociable and often cheerful scenes of modern life that constituted a significant portion of Homer’s earlier output and the stark scenes of survival and frequent mortality that dominated his later paintings of men braving the sea or the mountains in pairs—to struggle and sometimes die together.

Nothing so fraught with danger appears to be happening in Rab and the Girls, of course. The green sprig of clover is the fulcrum on which the composition hangs in the balance, visually poised to tip first this way, then that, neither side outweighing the other. Yet in its equilibrium there is not resolution but suspense: the suspense of the open-ended story, the artful refusal to deliver a coherent narrative package, and the persistent enigma that hovers around these women and their dog at twilight in the peaceful countryside of upstate New York. A fragment of a story embedded in a sedulously calculated design, Rab and the Girls remains a riddle in paint. If Rab knows the answer, he’s not telling.

Sarah Burns is Ruth N. Halls Professor of Fine Arts at Indiana University, Bloomington. She is the author of Pastoral Inventions: Rural Life in Nineteenth-Century American Art and Culture (1989) and Inventing the Modern Artist: Art and Culture in Gilded Age America (1996). She is at work on a forthcoming book, Painting the Dark Side: Art and the Gothic Imagination in Nineteenth-Century America.

  1. In his earlier career, and even later, Homer often came up with ironic and punning names for his work.
  2. Edward Strahan [Earl Shinn], ed., The Art Treasures of America Vol. 3 (Philadelphia: George Barnie, 1879), p. 86. Homer probably began making studies for Rab and the Girls in the fall of 1875, when he was working in the vicinity of rural Hurley in Ulster County, New York. The identity of the models is not known. More puzzling, there is some mystery surrounding the presence of the dog. Strahan in 1879 was the first critic to take note of the animal at all, let alone by the name “Rab.” Critics in 1876, by contrast, never remarked on this interesting and conspicuous figure, writing only about the two girls and the empty meadow. This seeming oversight suggests that the dog may have been added later, perhaps at the new owner’s request or on Homer’s own initiative. At this writing, the problem has not been resolved. I thank Margi Conrads for supplying information and insight into this issue.
  3. Vergilius Ferm, A Brief Dictionary of American Superstitions (New York: Philosophical Library, 1959), 97–98.
  4. Alexander Peddie, Recollections of Dr. John Brown (New York: Charles Scribner’s & Sons, 1893), 86–87. See also John Brown, Horae Subsecivae: Rab and His Friends, and Other Papers (Leipzig: Bernard Tauchnitz, 1862), 2–17.
  5. George R. Jesse, Researches into the History of the British Dog, Vol. 2 (London: Robert Hardwick, 1866), 224, 227, 398.
  6. In fact, we don’t even know the sex of Homer’s dog for certain. Given the alignment of the mastiff’s salient traits—combativeness, bravery, strength—with mainstream constructions of Victorian masculinity, it seems safe to assume that Homer’s Rab is male. On the riddle of Rab’s origins, see note 2.
  7. Nicolai Cikovsky, Winslow Homer, exhibition catalogue (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1995), 64–68, discusses the impact of industrial mechanization on Homer’s working methods.
  8. Homer apparently had a Bo-Peep costume, which he brought to his friend and patron Lawson Valentine’s Houghton Farm in Mountainville, New York, and used to dress the local children who served as models for the shepherdess paintings he produced in 1878. See Helen Cooper, Winslow Homer’s Water Colors (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), 60.
  9. Jana Colacina makes a compelling case for the impact of Chevreul on Homer in “Winslow Homer Watercolors and the Color Theories of M. E. Chevreul,” Master’s Thesis, Syracuse University, 1994. On p. 57, Colacina notes that Homer heavily marked the chapter in Chevreul where the section on changes in color caused by light began. Also see Kristin Hoermann, “A Hand Formed to Use the Brush,” in Marc Simpson, Winslow Homer: Paintings of the Civil War, exhibition catalogue (San Francisco: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1988), 103–119.

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