More Than One

“The Sisters” by Abbott Handerson Thayer, 1884

When one reviews a lifetime of works by an artist (any artist, be it painter, writer, sculptor, dancer, musician, whatever), if that artist is lucky, there will be one or two pieces deemed “Masterpiece.” These works will stand above the others. They will catch the eye or the throat or the heart and shout, “Me! I am the best work.” This painting by Abbott Handerson Thayer is in that category. It depicts two sisters — Bessie and Clara Stillman. For me, the relationship is what stands out. You understand immediately what these two women are about.

Do this for me: consider painting a portrait. How would you pose the figure? Is she sitting, standing, or looking over her shoulder at you? What interests or personality traits are you trying to convey? How do you do that? Now consider adding a second figure. Suddenly the options for composition, narrative, and character expand. Are they a couple? How do the people relate and interact? What’s their story? How do you express this with form and line and color? Why is this painting successful? What about it captures the sister’s dynamic?


I’m always pleased when Wiki confirms my opinion. Below is a link to the Wiki page about the painting. It contains basic information about its history and artistic merit. No need to duplicate the news here. Give it a click if you want to learn more.

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