Child Feeding Squirrels c.1940s
For twenty years before her marriage, Maud Lewis painted greeting cards that she sold door to door in Yarmouth. This painting of a child feeding squirrels bridges those cards and the painted landscapes she began to make once she had moved in with her husband, Everett, in his tiny house in Marshalltown. Made in the early 1940s, this image gives hints of what Lewis’s work from the 1920s and 1930s may have looked like.
In her early work Lewis tended to copy elements of existing imagery from seasonal cards and other media. Child Feeding Squirrels is a complex composition with a clearly defined foreground and background. It was certainly taken from a source image (the child’s clothing, the buttons along his or her pants, the clogs, and the head scarf all point to a source far from Digby or Yarmouth Counties). The multiple curving lines in this work—the overhanging branch, the line of the lakeshore, the hill in the background, the child’s crouching posture—also suggest a more sophisticated compositional strategy than usually seen in her paintings. Through the 1950s and 1960s they became less detailed, but we see here that she was not always working wholly in that manner—her work evolved as she created her unique style.
Lewis’s arthritis was progressive, and over the decades her physical capabilities dwindled. Her style developed as much to overcome these challenges as it did as a response to what her audience demanded. In this work, the flat blocks of colour in the grass and water and the treatment of the evergreens are familiar from later Lewis paintings, such as Fishing Schooner in the Bay of Fundy, n.d., as is the autumn coloration, seen in works such as Feeding the Horses, n.d.
Lewis’s style evolved through a process of simplification, of reducing the amount of information in a painting to just enough to convey her intention. Child Feeding Squirrels features many different elements and is designed to move the eye around the picture. This compositional strategy, common in illustrations in books, magazines, and commercial ephemera, is almost certainly a remnant of the source image rather than the result of any conscious strategy of her own. With no formal training, Lewis composed by imitation, and then by her own intuitive feel for the subject. This painting, superficially more sophisticated than many of her later images, is most interesting as a sign of the roots of Lewis’s mature work. If she had continued to paint like this, it is doubtful that her art would have gained much interest at all, as it is essentially copying rather than creating.