Welcome to #ThrowbackThursday with the UMFA! Every Thursday for the month of May, we’re exploring pieces in our collection that either mark UMFA milestones, or exemplify something special about the museum. Some staff members have been kind enough to offer some of their thoughts about these pieces. Next up, Ali Monjar explores how UMFA visitors connect to one of our most beloved paintings.
James T. Harwood’s Preparations for Dinner
written by Ali Monjar, Volunteer and Docent Tour Coordinator
James T. Harwood’s painting Preparations for Dinner (1892) is a rightful favorite of UMFA visitors and volunteers. I see many docents use this piece on their tours, and when I give tours it is one of my favorites to show as well. (The UMFA docent corps has actually proven their admiration for this piece by conserving it with money from the Ann K. Stewart Docent and Volunteer Conservation Fund. The fund is used to conserve one or several pieces each year by vote of the Docent and Volunteer Corps.)
This beloved piece has an interesting story. Harwood was an early Utah painter and the first of several to study art in Europe. Preparations for Dinner was actually shown at the Paris Salon of 1892. I’ve heard legends about how it came to be in the collection at the UMFA, and the following might have some facts confused with fiction: In short, it was owned by the University of Utah, but not in the UMFA collection. Several years ago, it was discovered in a way by UMFA employees and moved into our collection.
I’d be willing to bet, however, that most visitors and volunteers don’t know much about the painting’s past until after it has already caught their attention. So, logically, that is not what necessarily makes it special. I believe the magic of this painting is found in the timelessness of its topic. Obviously, the painting’s human subject has a specific setting—her attire gives her away—but the activity is one we still participate in, and that humans have participated in for ages. It is something that is often tied to strong emotions or memories. Some of us have memories of cooking with parents or grandparents. Some might think of their own experiences preparing meals to satisfying or disastrous results. Some might compare with either relief or regret their more fast-paced, modern dining experiences with the slow, time-intensive process depicted.
When I take visitors on tours and look at this piece, I like to ask what they imagine the young woman is thinking or feeling. I have scarcely heard the same response twice. When we come to the UMFA, we come with our own stories, and we can see parts of them in the treasures we have on view. The way that the stories of the UMFA’s collection interact with our own stories is what makes them meaningful. That’s what I love about my work and this painting.
So, what do you think the woman in this painting is thinking or feeling, and why? Have you ever felt that way when you were preparing for dinner?