In Bannister’s painting, a woman reads while gentle breezes flutter the leaves and grasses around her. This scene evokes the Massachusetts poet-philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Transcendentalist belief in the unity of nature and people. In Nature (1849), he wrote: “In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, — no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair… I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.” Emerson’s readers, possibly including Bannister, no longer saw nature as something to be conquered, but rather something that offered peace, which this woman may well have been experiencing.
Another theme evident here is that of a woman reading. Although depicted throughout the history of art, women reading took on an urgent symbolic power in the later nineteenth century as more women demanded, and secured, a higher education. Bannister often took his art students—both men and women—outside Providence to paint and sketch outdoors. The woman seen here may in fact have been one of his students, though the flock of geese grazing at left would have inferred to some viewers that she was instead a farm girl tending them. Compare the tiny detail of the woman reading here with artist Mabel Stuart’s more straightforward Portrait of Mary Elizabeth Cutting Buckingham in this exhibition’s second gallery. There is no ambiguity about Mary Buckingham’s capacity to read, and understand, a book for herself.