Most of Harry Wilson Watrous’ paintings feature elegantly dressed women engaging in banal activities against pastel, abstracted backgrounds. He presages Edward Hopper’s simplified forms and urban modernity, but with none of the isolating tension.
The titles, though, generally invite considerably more interesting—and sometimes even surreal—interpretations.
These perception-shifts range from the mild—a woman in elegant and slightly iridescent black sits rather uninspiringly in a cafe until her poetry-inpired title, A Cup of Tea, a Cigarette, and She, implies a third party—to the bizarre—a woman holding a tiny figurine of an 18th-century gentleman doffing his hat is somewhat unnervingly entitled The Suitors.
Sometimes Watrous’ choice casts intriguing doubt on an already-provocative piece: this family, an interracial couple and their daughter, caused enough of a stir at the National Academy of Design by the subject alone.
The title, though—The Drop Sinister—immediately raises a few more questions. Around 1913, when this was painted, a Constitutional Amendment was being proposed to ban interracial marriage on a principle called the “one-drop rule”: any African American ancestor at all, and a person would be considered black for the purposes of marriage. So perhaps that’s the answer—they worry for the marriageability of their daughter (and perhaps for the future legality of their own marriage). Certainly it’s an answer that would have occurred to Watrous’ audience.
The phrasing is a little odd, though. In casual speech, “a sinister drop” would sound more natural than. And it does seem slightly strange that two people with fairly dark hair have produced such a strikingly blond child. Not to mention that the nervous tension in the woman’s arm—and gaze—seems more focused on her husband than on her child. (But then, the bar sinister is a heraldic symbol indicating illegitimate birth.)
Now, I don’t have nearly so involved a tale to tell you about the 1915 painting this post ostensibly centers on. But I can tell you its suspiciously unassuming title: Just a Couple of Girls.