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A Domestic Affliction (Annette de l'Arbre)

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A Domestic Affliction (Annette de l'Arbre)

Artist: William E. West (American, 1788 - 1857)

Date: 1831
Medium: Oil on canvas
Overall: 44 3/8 × 56 1/8 × 1 3/8in. (112.7 × 142.6 × 3.5cm)
Framed: 57 1/2 × 69 3/8 × 5in. (146.1 × 176.2 × 12.7cm)
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 60.328
Text Entries

Henry Tuckerman’s account of William E. West’s career assigns considerable importance to a painting he described as “Annette de l’Arbre.”(1) Because an engraving was made after it by Joseph Andrews in London around 1835,(2) West’s composition was well known; however, the actual painting, which was in the hands of a Boston family for more than one hundred years, was relatively unknown until it was acquired in 1960 by the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute Museum of Art.

The picture’s origins can be traced to late 1829 when both West and Washington Irving were in England. For several years before this, West had exhibited mostly portraits at the Royal Academy’s annual exhibitions, but Irving persuaded him to paint works inspired by his stories, and during the two seasons they were together West only exhibited paintings based on Irving’s tales.

For the 1830 Academy exhibition the artist painted a work derived from Irving’s Sketch Book (1820) entitled The Pride of the Village, which is lost. Following the success of this picture, West illustrated another of Irving’s stories for the 1831 exhibition. He titled the work A Domestic Affliction after the story “Annette Delarbre” in Bracebridge Hall (1822). When the work was shown at the Academy, it was accompanied by a short passage intended to explain the scene represented.(3)

In the center of the painting stands Annette, the belle of the village of Pont l’Evéque in Normandy, being comforted by a physician and the widowed mother of Eugene, who is Annette’s lover. Her coquettishness caused him to run away to sea, and the sad rumor that he drowned in a storm afflicted her mind. In due course Eugene does return, but there is concern that her frail constitution cannot sustain the shock of seeing him, so their happy reunion is deferred for a while.

In West’s painting Annette is depicted standing near the seashore surrounded by her friends, while Eugene stares longingly at her from behind a tree where he is hiding, a strangely comical detail that has no source in Irving’s story. At one point in the tale, Annette is described as standing on the edge of a hill looking out to sea for her lover’s returning ship; however, this passage does not mention the group of friends who surround her in West’s painting, nor does it mention the bridal wreath she is wearing on her head. Both of these details as well as the sympathetic support that Annette is receiving from Eugene’s mother, and the attention she is getting from the village doctor, who is shown measuring her pulse, were compressed into the composition from different parts of Irving’s story. The resultant massing of figures assumes a distinctly theatrical aspect that may be indebted in a general way to some production West saw on the English stage.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the liberties West took with Irving’s text, the painting was well received when it was shown at the Royal Academy. Charles Leslie re- counted in a letter to William Dunlap that its “pathos and natural expression . . . attracted the admiration of Mr. Stothard and Mr. Rogers, two men whose good opinion is well worth having.“(4) The consequence of Samuel Rogers’s admiration of the picture was noted by Henry Tuckerman: “The appreciation of the bard of memory drew general attention to the picture.”(5) News of West’s triumph even attracted attention at the National Academy of Design in New York where he was designated an Honorary Member although up to 1832 he had shown only one work. Many years later West recalled how this picture helped him to establish his career as a portraitist in England: “That picture procured me my introduction to the English nobility.”(6)

Paul D. Schweizer   



1. Henry T. Tuckerman, Book of the Artists (New York: 1867; repr. New York: James F. Carr, Publisher, 1967). For a full account of West’s life and art see Estill C. Pennington, William Edward West, 1788-1857: Kentucky Painter, exhibition catalog (Washington, D.C.: National Portrait Gallery, 1985). Also, Estill C. Pennington, “Painting Lord Byron: An Account by William Edward West,” Archives ofAmerican Art Journal, vol. 24 (1984), pp. 16-21.

2. This engraving is illustrated as fig. 2 in Paul D. Schweizer, “Washington Irving‘s Friendship with William Edward West and the Impact of his History Of New York on John Quidor of American Art Journal, vol. 24 (1984), pp. 16-21.

3. Ibid., p. 77.

4-. William Dunlap, History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States (New

York: 1834; new ed., New York: Benjamin Blom, Inc., 1965), vol. 3, p. 4.1.

5. Tuckerman, p. 202.

6. Nellie P. Dunn, “An Artist ofthe Past: William Edward West and His Friends at Home and Abroad,” Putnam’s Monthly Magazine, vol. 2 (September 19o7), p. 665.


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