Waiting for William

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John George Brown
Waiting for William, 1879
Oil on canvas

At the dawn of the twentieth century, J. G. Brown was America’s richest and best-know painter of daily life. He was famed for his depictions of New York street children, but also painted scenes of rural childhood, laboring dock workers and fishermen, and beautiful women in wistful poses.

Among the loveliest of these is Waiting for William, in which a young woman, dressed in her finest clothes, surveys the watery horizon, longing for her beloved to return from the sea. With the point of her parasol, she has written his name -William- in the sand. Is William's return imminent, or has he been lost at sea, never to return? As is the case with other examples of nineteenth-century narrative painting, Brown's work leaves much to the imagination. It also borrows from the popular culture of his day, for the melancholic theme of the woman waiting by the sea was a staple of late nineteenth-century parlor songs.