B.T. of Santa Barbara found a delightful etching on paper in her grandfather's storage garage. The scene features a lowly barn door with a stone archway. The door is made of simple plank boards, showing age and breaks in the ancient construction. Ivy drips down over the lintel. A feeding bowl rests atop some hay scattered on a stone pillar near the base of the doorway. At the center of it all is a young Cupid with bow and arrow, cocking his ear to the door, listening, and raising a little fist to knock. We see his white wings and his "weapon" behind his back. A young, smiling face peeps out from one of the breaks at the top of the door.
This is not an original work. It is a "multiple," or a print, but a print that was labor-intensive as each individual etching was hand-pressed. Etchings were the middle-class answer to desirable fine art on the parlor wall.
A signature at the bottom reads "J L Hamon," signed in the plate; this refers to Jean-Louis Hamon (1821-74). A signature in the original etching plate means that many were produced, and Hamon did not countersign B.T.'s piece with his own signature, as in the more valuable etchings.
Hamon first showed at the Paris Salon of 1848 and then made his mark at the London International Exhibition of 1851, where he received a medal. In Paris, at the Salon of 1852, a work was purchased by Napoleon III. Then, at the Paris International Exhibition of 1855, he won the ribbon of the Legion of Honor. He continued to show at international exhibitions in 1857, 1859, 1866, 1867 and his last Salon at 1873. A monument was erected at his death in 1874 in his hometown in Cotes-d'Armor, north of Brittany.
Hamon's work is typical of his era: mythologically based, romantic, set in nature in simple compositions, and full of young delicate women in love, in simple garb. B.T.'s image would have been easily read by art lovers of Hamon's era: Cupid is knocking at the door of a human heart. A barrier exists — a door — but the heart may open to let love (Cupid) in. The recipient of the mythological arrow yet to fly, behind the door, is locked inside. Love is waiting to be found inside and yet knocks first to break down the doors of confinement. Something wonderful may happen if Cupid's knock is answered. But the result is ambiguous. We can't see if the face behind the door is receptive to love. She's waiting ? or maybe love in the shape of a farmhand lover is already inside with her.
Images as allegories or metaphors were a common visual language in the mid-19th century, and every viewer would have understood the implicit sexuality in this image. B.T.'s little etching says this perfectly in 19th century terms, even if young modern B.T. has wondered about its meaning.
Our visual language in the 21st century is not symbolic. Perceiving in metaphor, with one's eyes, was a specifically late-19th-century way of seeing art, which always carried a hidden message or moral. In the English language, as early as the 15th century, the farmhouse act of rolling dough before baking was associated with lovemaking; the reference in this little farmyard scene of a "roll in the hay" would not have been lost on its late-19th century viewers. The dough metaphor would have further led viewers to the associated idiom "a bun in the oven." Such colloquialisms of the 19th century pair sexuality with the reference to the earthiness of a barnyard, a location in this composition intentionally chosen by the artist. Also not uncommon to the late Victorian era were hidden references to sexuality glossed over with acceptable naked baby Cupids and haymaking!
Although much of Hamon's work had the symbolic content of a dream, he is not classified as an early surrealist, nor is his work naturalistic enough to be classified as a Pre-Raphaelite. Hamon was a popular painter whose pieces were copied as parlor engravings, common before copyright laws in the late 1870s.
B.T., sentimental art of the third quarter of the 19th century with a "popular" following in its day is not valuable today. Considered too sweet and too pretty, its pedantic tone is directed toward a message. The lesson of the dilemma of "letting Cupid in" was met with a wry smile in 1860-70 but is considered cloying by most buyers today. The value at most is $150.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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