Picture of the Week: Girl Sewing by David McCosh

November 21, 2023

David McCosh, Girl Sewing, 1931, oil on canvas, 29 5/8 x 24 5/8

David McCosh is a notable Oregon artist and educator. He studied at Coe College in 1922 and began studying at the Art Institute of Chicago a year later, where he would pursue his undergraduate and graduate studies. In 1927, during his graduate studies, he received the John Quincy Adams Fellowship, and spent a year traveling and painting in Europe. As a student in the 1920s, McCosh painted in a post-Impressionist style. This style may be attributed to his time in Europe, where he likely would have seen the works of Post-Impressionist artists Van Gogh, and Cezanne, along with the Neo-Impressionist Seurat. McCosh’s painting style changed throughout his life, however he consistently emphasized the importance of careful observation. 

In the 1930s, McCosh adopted a midwestern regionalist style, composing Oregon landscapes. He also began teaching at the Art Institute and the Stone City Art colony in Iowa in 1932, under a program headed by his friend and artist Grant Wood. McCosh was part of this program during the Great Depression and was struggling to make a living as an artist. In 1934, McCosh started teaching at the University of Oregon, providing instruction in painting, drawing, and lithography. That same year, he married fellow artist Anne Kutka. He taught many notable artists before his retirement in 1970, including Craig Chesire, Nelson Sandgren, Tom Hardy, Harry Widman, Rudy Autio, Mark Clarke, and Margaret Coe. His work has been featured in exhibitions at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Maynard Walker Gallery in New York, the Seattle Art Museum, the Portland Art Museum, and the University of Oregon Museum of Art. He passed away in 1981, but he continues to be an influential artist and educator for Oregon artists. In 1990, his wife Anne started “the Schnitzer Museum’s David John McCosh and Anne Kutka McCosh Memorial Museum Endowment Fund in 1990 to preserve and promote the understanding of David McCosh's work and to support other Museum programs.”

McCosh’s 1931 oil painting Girl Sewing was featured in the exhibition The Making of David McCosh: Early Paintings, Drawings, and Prints in 2011 at the University of Oregon’s Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art. His brushstrokes are expressive and highly textured, within a similar vein as Impressionist and Post-Impressionistic style. He composes a primarily neutral interior, with the girl front and center in a bright, chartreuse dress. Though McCosh places other items in the background, like a table, pitcher, and bouquet of flowers, the girl is the focus of the composition. Her short hair may be indicative of the modern hairstyles for women of the 1920s and 1930s. She is seated on a gray cushion as she sews a pink garment, with the bright color of the fabric drawing more attention to her. McCosh constructs her with a rounded, robust body, emphasizing her calf muscles and arms with shading. Her large, strong body is juxtaposed by the tiny sewing thread laying at her feet. She does not look at her handiwork, but rather downward and off to the side with sad, tired eyes. The shading under her eyes highlights her exhaustion. Her demeanor can likely be attributed to the economic turmoil of the Great Depression. Though she works with diligent hands, her downcast face suggests a negative outlook on life. Nevertheless, the emphasis McCosh places on the strength of her body may connote resilience and a sense of hope for the future.

Girl Sewing is meant to be in conversation with McCosh’s painting The Foreman (1932). Similar to the girl, the man is seated on a block of wood in the foreground. However, he is outdoors, with trees and rolling hills behind him. This painting was created the same year that he joined the Stone City Art colony in Iowa, so the background may be an Iowa landscape. McCosh captures a moment of rest in The Foreman as he sits leaning against his shovel, while the figure in Girl Sewing is in the middle of her work. The shadows around the man’s face convey exhaustion as well. Once again however, McCosh draws attention to the musculature of the figure, using shading to illustrate his forearm muscles. Dr. Joseph Keating suggests that the foreman may be modeled after his grandfather, Joe Power, who had immigrated from Northern Ireland to Cedar Rapids, Iowa in 1915. A photograph taken of Power working in a pair of overalls amongst the trees supports this claim. Given that McCosh composed Girl Sewing just a year before The Foreman, the girl may be another one of Keating’s relatives. The subject matter in both paintings suggests McCosh’s empathetic view of the labor of the working class during the Great Depression. He would have shared this interest in the working class with the Post-Impressionist Van Gogh, who represented marginalized groups in works like The Potato Eaters and The Gleaners.  

Written by Angela Athnasios

Sources: https://www.oregonencyclopedia.org/articles/mccosh_david_1903_1981_/


Dr. Joseph Keating, Ph.D.

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