Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The Tea Party and the Dinner Party, Early 1820s

I don't have any dancing observations today, but I went to the Museum of Fine Arts the other evening and spent a long time looking at these two paintings. They were painted by Henry Sargent and were quite well known at the time. The Dinner Party was painted first, in about 1821, and was exhibited with great success, which lead the exhibitor to commission The Tea Party in 1824.

You can read more about the paintings and see close ups on the MFA website. I entertained myself by trying to understand more about the two parties using clues in the paintings, especially the light sources.

The Dinner Party takes place during the day. We can see this because the illumination is coming from the windows. There is no fire in the fireplace, so it is probably summer. The lower shutters are closed, probably to avoid letting in too much light or heat. The upper window on the right is unshuttered and the the upper window on the left has a shutter partially open. We see sixteen men seated at the table. The tablecloth has been removed, and the gentlemen are enjoying "desert" There is a single lighted candle on the table, probably,  as the MFA website suggests, for lighting tobacco for an after dinner smoke. The lamp on the side table, as well as the candles on the chandelier are unlit.

The carpets in both paintings are similar, so both scenes were likely set in the same house. I don't think the rooms line up exactly, and the curtains are different colors, but if we allow for some artistic license, we might decide that the dining room in the first painting is the same as the rear room or maybe the side room in the second.

The Tea Party seems to be taking place on a winter's evening. There is a fire in the fireplace.  We are looking into a parlor, and through an archway into a second room.  The parlor in the tea party has no overhead lighting. There are candle sconces on the walls, and a variety of candles and lamps on the mantle piece. We can see the light that the sconce candles cast up on the ceiling. We can also see the light from the mantelpiece candles being reflected by the mirror onto the opposite wall. 

Sargent uses the light to draw attention to different groupings of people, especially the couple by the fireplace. The lady's decolletage glows, her red shawl catches the eye. The gentleman's white breeches and stockings are brightly lighted. These white nether garments are in distinct contrast to the dark trousers of the men at the dinner party. The men in the dinner party are dressed for daytime; in the tea party they are dressed for evening. All the women are wearing headdresses, mostly turbans, and wearing shawls. It makes sense that a woman who was not dancing might want a warm shawl.

The lights in the far room are much brighter and light is spilling though the archway into the parlor.
There is a black servant, probably the same person, in each painting.

These paintings provide a wonderful glimpse into entertainment styles in early Nineteenth Century Boston.

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