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image icon 'The letter', 1889

'The letter', 1889
Art Gallery of South Australia


This is an oil painting on canvas, measuring 45.8 cm x 30.7 cm, by Emma Minnie Boyd (1858-1936), painted in 1889. It shows a young woman standing by a pair of open French doors that lead off a lounge room and onto a narrow veranda. The woman is wearing a full-length dress made of white summer-weight fabric, which has a high collar, transparent sleeves and a belt around her slim waist. In her left hand she is holding a presentation bunch of pink flowers and her right hand is tucked behind her back. She is looking down and away as if lost in her own thoughts - an opened envelope lies by her feet almost on the doorway threshold. The room is artistically decorated and furnished: there is a cane chair and an upholstered chair, a side table covered in a decorative cloth, richly patterned and coloured Persian-style carpets on the floor, a distinctive ceramic peacock vase containing flowers, several other flower displays and a painted wooden screen. A veranda bench is visible through the doorway and beyond this (backlit by bright sunshine) is a garden.

Educational value

This resource is useful because it:

  • is a work of art by Emma Minnie Boyd (1858-1936) - Boyd is well known both as an artist and as the cofounder of what is now a four-generation Boyd dynasty of Australian artists; Emma married fellow artist Arthur Merric Boyd and their children included Merric Boyd (1888-1959) who, with his wife Doris, founded Australia's first significant pottery studio; one of their grandchildren was Arthur Boyd (1920-99) who became one of the nation's most significant 20th-century artists; Emma Boyd studied under the Munich-trained teacher George Frederick Folingsby (1828-91) at the National Gallery School in Melbourne, where she developed skills in painting anecdotal and domestic subjects with scrupulous attention to detail; across her working career she painted familiar subjects, including interiors of her family's houses, upper middle-class Melbourne drawing rooms, often with family members acting as models (the artist's sister Ethel was the model for the young woman in 'The letter')
  • is an excellent example of later-19th-century Victorian narrative-style painting - paintings that told stories and pointed morals were extremely popular with the gallery-going public at this time; 'The letter' hints at things to come in the action of the young woman looking away wistfully, with the letter tucked behind her back; the opened envelope at her feet points like an arrow to the outside; perhaps the open doorway is symbolic of life beckoning, and once the threshold is crossed, life will never be the same
  • demonstrates Boyd's skills in dealing with light - the darkened interior has been painted with precision while the outside has been suggested in an impressionist style of brushwork; this contrast has been given additional interest and complexity by the artist's handling of the spill of light as it filters through the curtains, reflects off the floor and glass panels and highlights the profusion of detailing and patterning within the room
  • is a snapshot of a particular type of interior design taste of the day - the peacock floor feature, richly-patterned and artfully arranged drapery, Persian-style carpets and the screen indicate the prevailing influence of the English aesthetic movement (a movement that held that the arts should provide refined sensuous pleasure, rather than convey moral or sentimental messages).