"The Carpenter's Son" -- A Unitarian painting
On March 1, 2007, First Unitarian in New Bedford transferred ownership of "The Carpenter's Son," a wonderful late-19th C. painting by Edward Emerson Simmons, to the Rotch-Jones-Duff House and Garden Museum. (See a picture of the painting: link.)
There's a story behind the transfer.
The painting was purchased by Miss Amelia C. Jones, and Miss Jones bequeathed the painting to First Unitarian in 1935. Unfortunately, a vandal seriously damaged the painting in 1996, cutting a large section out of it, thus making the rest of the painting worthless. But remarkably, the lost section of the painting was recovered in the fall of 2006.
A new refrigerator was being moved into the congregation's kitchen. Pete Corrie, of Corrie's Refrigerator (376 Cedar St., New Bedford), was wrestling the old refrigerator out when he noticed something had been stuffed behind it. He called over Claudette Blake, our congregational administrator, who recognized that it was the lost section of "The Carpenter's Son."
Interviewed by the New Bedford Standard-Times on February 27, 2007, Ms. Blake recalled, "When I looked at it, I saw the face of the child, which I immediately recognized. I remember doing a little dance. I'm happy I was there because it might just have been thrown away." [Link to article, subscription required.]
The congregation was able to regain title to the damaged sections of painting, and decided to transfer ownership to the Rotch-Jones-Duff House and Garden Museum. By transferring ownership to one of the partners in the New Bedford Whaling Historical National Park, the painting will have a much wider audience, and the museum will be able to restore it and provide a suitable home for it. Best of all, the painting will remain in New Bedford where it belongs.
The congregation retains great fondness for the painting. Edward Emerson Simmons, the artist, was the son of a Unitarian minister, and his painting presents Jesus as fully human. Simmons was born in Concord, Massachusetts, and was influenced by another Concord resident, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great Unitarian philosopher and poet. (Coincidentally, R. W. Emerson preached for several months here at First Unitarian in New Bedford in 1834.)
To commemorate our connection with this wonderful painting, we present excerpts from statements made by the artist and others about "The Carpenter's Son":
From an article by art historian Sumner Crane:
In 1996, Sumner Crane, author and art historian, wrote an article about the painting, a copy of which he gave to us for our archives. The article was later published in American Art (summer, 2000, vol. 14, no. 2). Mr. Crane detailed Edward Simmons' Unitarian connections:
"The Carpenter's Son" had its first showing in 1888 at the Paris Salon, which also contained another version of The Flight into Egypt by Cazin. In addition to the Royal Academy, it was also exhibited at an international exhibition in Glasgow, where as Simmons wrote, a critic denounced "the low-typed boy [Simmons' son!] who, with the old had... are supposed to represent Christ and his mother."
Unitarians don't believe in the concept of the Trinity and consider Jesus a great prophet and teacher but not the son of God. Though Simmons did not paint "The Carpenter's Son" for a church, his humanized image of Christ has achieved iconic status for some... The Rev. Horace Westwood, a retired pastor and current church member [now deceased] said Simmons' painting has always been controversial to some fundamentalist Christians....
Simmons' father, George Frederick Simmons, a graduate of Harvard's Divinity School, was an extremely motivated [Unitarian] minister and a zealous abolitionist....
Crane then quotes a section from Simmons' autobiography From Seven to Seventy:
In the year 1888 I sent two pictures to the Royal Academy which were duly accepted and hung. Imagine my joy when a large and formidable communication found it way to my studio in Parish, asking the price of one of my canvases and signed by the Chantry Bequest. This was a well-known fund created to buy pictures for the government to place in its permanent galleries, and everyone knew that, once the price had been asked, it amounted to the same thing as a sale.... The picture, which I called "The Carpenter's Son," was a simple pose of one of my children in my studio. A blond boy with a light shining over his head sat dreaming, instead of sweeping out the shop, while his mother, in the back told his father what a worthless son he had begotten. The shavings had accidentally fallen in the form of a cross [at the bottom right], and the light seemed to be a halo. The Scotsman came out with a scathing denunciation of the work (not at the idea, mind you) but because, as they said, I had been sacreligious enough to paint Christ in the costume of a French peasant boy! Of course, the Chantry bequest did not buy -- for the first time -- after asking the price.
Crane then continues:
Though Simmons' concept of Christ was derived from his Unitarian background, Simmons was not a churchgoer in his adulthood, and did not consider himself religious. Simmons, from his secular standpoint, was portraying Christ as a representative historical figure.... In "The Carpenter's Son" Simmons is portraying the young Christ as representative of genius in collision with society.
A letter from Edward E. Simmons to Amelia Jones:
A copy of the following letter is in the files of First Unitarian:
The Players, 16 Gramercy Park, England
June 8, 1892
Dear Miss Jones,
There is little to tell you of the picture that you have greatly pleased me by wishing to own. The picture was painted in the season of 1888 and being unsatisfactory to me was scraped out, to a great extent and repainted, with my older boy as a model for the boy in the foreground.
It was painted at St. Ives -- of cat fame -- in the extreme east of Cornwall, England. The result of the repainting was an unusual success at the Royal Academy -- joined to an offer of purchase from the trustees of the Chantry fund -- withdrawn -- I suspect from the opposition of the English Church people.
When sent to Scotland -- Glasgow -- it caused me to be the amused object of much fury and denunciation from the "Scotsman" -- if I remember the paper....
I know very little of how the details of Christ's surroundings should be told. I imagined no one knows enough to be worth listening to. Therefore we younger men fall back upon our own time -- believing that man has always been fundamentally the same.
I go shortly back to the other side of the water -- but hope to be here again before very many days and then will be bold enough to ask you to let me come and see what has always been a favorite canvas of mine -- in its new surroundings.
Edward E. Simmons
When did the painting come to New Bedford?
After Miss Jonnes bought the painting, she allowed it to be exhibited at the great Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893. It is not clear if the painting hung in her New Bedford house first, or if it went straight to Chicago after she purchased it. From a letter in our files from the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, dated June 12, 1992:
Miss Jones did lend the painting to the World's Columbian Exposition. According to the date of the artist's letter to her, it seems that she purchased the painting in mid-1892.
[signed] Shelley Mead, Research Assistant
Ms. Mead researched the painting when it was shown at the Smithsonian in the exibit "American Art from the 1893 World's Fair," March through September, 1993.
In the catalog of the 1893 Columbian Exposition, the painting is listed as follows:
Simmons, Edward E., New York.
917. The Carpenter's Son. (Lent by Miss Amelia C. Jones, New Bedford, Mass.)
To think that Miss Jones sent her painting all the way to Chicago, perhaps even before it hung in her own house! -- it tells us something about her sense of the importance of the painting.
The painting continues to have importance to us today. It is important for its distinguished exhibition history --Paris, London, Glasgow, the great 1893 Columbian exhibition in Chicago, and at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. It has important associations with the city of New Bedford, through being owned by Amelia Jones. And it is important in its own right, as a fine example of a late-19th C. American painting.
Artist: Edward Emerson Simmons (signed on bench crossbar).
Title: "The Carpenter's Son"
Size: H. 66" x W. 50-1/2"
Medium: Oil on canvas.
Provenance: 1888-1892, Edward E. Simmons.
1892-1935, Amelia C. Jones.
1935-2007: First Unitarian in New Bedford (damaged, 1996, section lost until 2006).
2007-present, Rotch-Jones-Duff House and Garden Museum.