Looking at “The Breakfast” by William Paxton

The Breakfast, c. 1911
William McGregor Paxton (1869-1941)

With encouragement, I write these posts to invite appreciation of the visual arts. Each painting has a reason into how it came to be. Likewise, we as viewers can have many reasons for how we respond to it. Thus it begins, each time we go to a museum, to look at paintings, take them in and enjoy them for a while. This type of looking is not based so much on whether we prefer certain styles or colors, but a deeper kind of looking that guides our responses and shapes them into our own ideas or considerations.

Here, we come across a painting “The Breakfast”, by William McGregor Paxton. He was an American painter in the manner of the “Boston School” working during the turn of the twentieth century, roughly the 1880’s to 1941.

This narrative of a relationship become stagnant has been done by others but there is so much to read into this one. The painting is clearly beautifully done in a manner that combines a European impressionist touch of Degas, the American style of realism, and a compositional influence of Vermeer, a Flemish artist who Paxton admired. One could read this painting perhaps as a comedy, a la “I Love Lucy”, however, there is probably more here than just visual humor. This may be less comedy and more a portrait of situation, predicament and consequence.

The composition of the figures had to be managed in such a way for us to feel the deadness of the relationship that is in the air. For instance, the maid with her back to us, walking away on eggshells, what will she say behind the service door? As a middle-class nineteenth century couple with all the lovely provisions, what is his justification for his self absorption? Is his role to be on the matters of “important things” now that the wooing is over? Notice the basket of dying flowers in the foreground. What luster fell from the promise she thought was her future?

So, as we see, a painting can be constructed as a stage, with its cast (Paxton’s wife may have been his model for the seated woman), its lighting and set design. These narrative paintings tell a story that create a profound amount of inquiry and thought stimulation that may enrich us for a while. That, we get to keep as a freebie while we exit the museum through the gift shop.

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