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Style and Sincerity

By Dylan Brekka
  • RISDM 06-002

Frank Weston Benson, Lady Trying on a Hat, 1904. Gift of Walter Callender, Henry D. Sharpe, Howard L. Clark, William Gammell and Isaac C. Bates.

The woman in Frank W. Benson’s Lady Trying on a Hat has always been a character who caught my eye during visits to the Museum. From her averted gaze to the contrast between her white dress and the black hat, she is poised to play the lead role on the stage that Benson created. “In matters of great importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.” This quote, from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest, is brought to life as I gaze at this painting and the woman it portrays. Fashion over truth? Who would believe that? When I read Wilde’s play in my high school English class, I didn’t question this thought process one bit. After all, style is an aspect of life that can be used as a facade, a way to mask who we are by portraying who we want to be. The black hat provides this mask to the woman in the painting whose beautiful dress and sense of style show through while her true self lies within the shadows.

More than one hundred years have passed since the creation of this painting, yet when I look at this woman I feel as if I’m right there with her as she posed for the artist. She’s immortalized in this moment, with her eyes eternally shrouded, adding a hint of secrecy to her actions. Benson incorporates an air of urgency and mystery; like a photograph taken while someone is in motion, his brushstrokes illustrate a passing moment. Rapid yet meticulously-placed with bursts of color verging on being out of place, these strokes seem more real and honest than any other feature of the work. This aspect of the painting, the way she is frozen in time, still caught in the moment, is what makes me stop, think, and wonder—who was this woman? Where is she preparing to go? What sort of secrets would she have to tell, if she were willing to share them?

This painting is not a typical portrait; it is not a refined depiction of high society such as John Singleton Copley painted centuries before. It does not reveal all about the person nor does it reveal the person the subject wants to be. This is a painting of a woman whom I will never know. This is a painting of a woman I want to know. She’s stylish and obscure, leaving me with questions that can never be answered. Despite this, I’m transported into a different moment, where it’s just me and her, the lady who shrouds her eyes with the big black hat, further proving that style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.

Dylan Brekka, Senior, Bayview Academy, Riverside, RI
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