Sisterhood on ice

A circle of girls and young women on the ice.
As ice-skating became a leading pastime in the 1860s, pictures of ice-skating and ice-skaters proliferated in the popular press, recording its impact on society.  Looking at such pictures, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that skating represented something special in the lives of women, while also violating existing norms.  If skating let women escape a certain social confinement, it rendered them more vulnerable, too.  Ice-skating, though fun and bold, exposed women to certain perils, among them a mixing of classes and sexes that nineteenth-century society was set up to avoid.

This print by Winslow Homer (1836-1910) encapsulates such strains.  By the time it was created (1868), the Civil War was over, and Homer, who had gotten his professional start as an artist-correspondent for Harper’s Weekly drawing war scenes at the front, had moved on to peace-time subjects like these.  Increasingly, his works were of leisurely pursuits, in bucolic settings.  Many featured women absorbed in their own private pastimes, whether reading, berry-picking, sewing, or strolling.  This representative drawing of five skaters showcases the sensibility and talent that made Homer a preeminent artist of the time.

The bell-like figures at center are rendered meticulously, their clothing, hair, and expressions presented in a realistic yet stylized manner.  Homer details the textures, patterns, and shapes that signified fashionable skating outfits, giving us their puffy fur muffs, crenelated skirts with tassels and wide sashes, showy petticoats, and flying ribbons.  The girl at left sways as she skates, as do her long braids.  The print is a tableau of motion and spontaneity.  The veil of the dark figure at center is flattened against her face, betokening a harsh winter breeze.

Unlike many other contemporary illustrations of skating, this isn’t a particularly lighthearted scene.  The four figures in front are linked in attitudes of dependency, the girl at right looking serious as she pushes off her skates, while the youngest claims the attention of the older woman, who, given her dowdy clothes and careworn mien, is more likely a chaperone or caregiver than the mother of such girls.  The young lady at left, though nearly grown, holds a tether that connects her to her younger sisters.  Nice girls could not go to the ice rink unaccompanied.  Only the oldest of the girls, a young lady really, faces us and, by standing aloof, asserts her independence of them.  The whole arrangement has a ‘circle the wagons’ feeling.  The small girls cleave to their nanny, and, if no one has fallen, it’s a miracle, really.

Image: Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.
Click here to go to the source.

This is the seventh in an occasional series on ice skating.  Click here to go to the first post.

6 responses

  1. I love Homer and you did a great job at analyzing the picture and drawing me in. I could be wrong but it looks like the girls have blades that slip over their socks rather than an integrated skating boot. Is this correct?

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    • You’re right, Malcolm. The skates have straps that criss-cross up around the ankles; they were worn over/in addition to boots. I think this style of skate was about to become outmoded. Skate design was changing rapidly as I mentioned here.
      Thanks so much for writing in!
      Susan

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  2. I, too, lover Homer. When you visit, you’ll find a Homer print over the bed in the guest suite. It has a more restful feel than this one. The background of this print interests me. Is a woman pulling another woman’s braid? Also, the trees look threatening, thus the need to circle the wagons.

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    • You’re right–the woman in the back is pulling at another woman’s braid or hair ribbon. Maybe trying to pull her hat off?
      I have never seen pictures of women wearing such long braids in public!
      Thank you, Jody, and happy new year!
      Susan

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  3. An excellent job at analyzing this picture ! I so very much enjoyed reading your commentary! You have a “good eye” for detail. As for Homer–what a brilliant picture he made. He sure captured a wonderful scene with a most keen and sharp memory. Pure genius.

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