Thomas Hovenden captures 1870s French peasant family life in ‘One Who Can Read’

By Daniel Fulco, Ph.D., Agnita M. Stine Schreiber Curator

We hope you enjoy this painting, which is on loan from the Maryland State Archives, Annapolis. If you visit the museum, this work is on view in the Smith Gallery. 

Thomas Hovenden (American, 1840–95)
One Who Can Read, 1877
Oil on canvas
27 ½ x 33 ¼ in.
Lent by the Maryland State Archives,
Peabody Art Collection, SC 4680–10–0037

In this contemplative genre painting (a depiction of everyday life), Thomas Hovenden brings us into the intimate space of a Breton peasant family home in western France. Sitting in a partially illuminated room, a young girl reads, presumably to her illiterate relatives. While the man smokes a pipe, the old woman pauses from her cloth spinning and gazes at her momentarily. Hovenden poignantly captured the figures’ attentive gaze as they listened to their companion’s every word. Bright sunlight shines through the window, imbuing the scene with warmth and heightening its inviting nature. 

Hovenden spent five years in Pont-Aven, Brittany, drawing and painting the local people in works that often idealize their way of life. While there, he joined a colony of British and American artists, and was heavily influenced by Robert Wylie (1839–77), an English painter who focused on Breton peasant subjects. Born in Ireland, Hovenden immigrated to New York City in 1863 and studied at the National Academy of Design. He became lifelong friends with landscape painter Hugh Bolton Jones (1848–1927, whose work is also represented in the collection). In 1868, the young artists set up a studio together in Baltimore. Enamored by Hovenden’s talents, two prominent art collectors and trustees of the Peabody Institute, Willam T. Walters (1820–94) and John W. McCoy (1821–89), sponsored him to train in Paris in 1874. Thereafter, Hovenden spent most of his time in Brittany, before returning to the US in 1880 and settling in Plymouth Meeting, PA.