A Closer Look:Charles Miller Williams/Boy with Hobby Horse/Hobby Gray (1854)

This painting illustrates the increasing sophistication of Cook's work since his early years as an itinerant in Canada (see, by way of contrast, an early child portrait, Moss Kent Dickinson, from 1832). This portrait is organized as sinuous lines of child and horse intersecting at the boy's chest. Mastering composition with a stylized, graceful pose, Cook combines a mature stance with a child's face and genteel touch. The artist gives life to the flesh as well as a feel to the fabrics of this innocent sitter. The opulence of the materials informs the viewer of the family's position in society: the soft brown velvet top accentuated by a sea foam of lace around the boy's arm, the delicate pleats of his trousers adorned with brass studs, even the shine on his soft leather shoes. The riding hat and, possibly, a riding crop on the floor forecast a lifetime of privilege for this youngster. The playful pose, contrasting bright and dull hues, depth of detail, and careful modeling to depict an identifiable individual are dramatic departures from the stern and rigid countenances and muted colors we see in Cook's "primitivism" of the 1830s.

Despite the increasing sophistication of his work, Cook's nonacademic, itinerant training as an artist is to some critics apparent throughout his career. For instance, observes a critic from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (writing about another Cook portrait), "his interest in detail, pattern, and decorative effects [so evident in Hobby Gray][are] often a hallmark of the self-taught painter." Likewise, the uniform, "almost mechanical" shading in some of his modeling can give his forms a "tubular quality" [e.g., the boy's arm? See also Mary Telfer Baird (1833) and the neck and dress ornamentation of Mrs. Naramore (1855) for examples of both of these observations].

The painting, a large one (48"h X 36"w), was done on a fairly crude stretcher (apparently typical for much of Cook's work) of 4 1/4" X 1" pine with a simple mortise and slot for one key in each corner. Generally (but not always) Cook signed his paintings on verso, as in this case.

See under Portraits (1854) for additional information on this painting, reproduced here with permission of the Rochester Historical Society. Photo images courtesy of West Lake Conservators, Ltd., Skaneateles, NY. With thanks to Joyce Fillip, formerly with the Art Department, Dartmouth College, and John Sutton, West Lake Conservators, Ltd., for commentary. See also Natalie Spassky, American Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Vol. II.