This post comes to us from Rena Tobey, Curatorial Intern.
Who wouldn’t want to know what the future holds?
Over one hundred years ago, artist Harry Roseland tapped into that same yearning with a series of works he painted from 1890 to 1910 of tea leaf and palm readers. Reading Tea Leaves from 1906, a gem in the NBMAA collection, represents this series perfectly. You’ll find the painting in the Johnson gallery on the first floor. Even though it’s a small work, we think you’ll be drawn right in to its story.
Here, a young white woman asks about her future by consulting with an elderly black woman. Look at the expression on her face. What is she feeling? The painting is dominated by pinks and reds, the colors of love, so most likely she wonders about the man she will marry. The two women study the pattern of tea leaves at the bottom of a large bone china cup. They comfortably lean toward each other, forming a triangle of intimacy. We peek into their quiet, private, fascinated moment, but we will never know what that cup reveals.
Roseland keeps your attention focused, by tightly cropping the scene, showing how limited, and yet different, these women’s worlds are. The artist depicts enough of an interior to understand that the black woman is poor. The privileged white woman is caged, too, only upwardly mobile only through marriage. The artist avoids any hint of the New Woman actively advocating for her rights at this same time, perhaps more comfortable focusing his young woman on her marital prospects than her political future.
Ironically, the black woman is the one wielding power in the painting, the power of prediction. The beautiful young woman represents contemporary fashion and privilege, but she has sought out an old-world elder for guidance. The painting captures the ambivalences of turn-of-the-20th-century modernity as it meets these 19th -century sensibilities.
Since the geography of the painting is left open-ended, the older woman could very well have been a slave and certainly would have remembered Emancipation. She links this new century to an old set of laws, values and beliefs. She represents a people newly freed, but not yet equal. She’s still at the beck and call of a white woman.
Throughout the series, Roseland, a Northerner who never visited the South, shows his soothsayers as African American, using sentimental stereotypes. The elder’s ability to read signs and symbols tapped into beliefs that older black women were closer to the earth, to the mysteries of the universe, to a primitive spirituality. The fortuneteller also recalls a Mammy–a maternal, black woman type, who unselfishly cares for white children, used in popular culture advertising, songs and plays.
Roseland’s fortune-teller series was wildly popular, perhaps because of its reassuring assertion of the former century’s way of life. The artist returned to the theme again and again, echoing the pose of the black and white women and reusing the same props–the sewing kit, the hat, and parasol. The paintings were reproduced as affordable prints and postcards sold in sets, plus were inserted as supplements in newspapers.
Roseland’s work falls in a long line of paintings about fortune tellers. In the United States, an early work by William Sidney Mount, Dregs in a Cup from 1838, built on the European tradition of the exotic gypsy and shy ingénue. Although Mount himself attended séances, the American public was suspicious of fortune telling.
You might be able to understand why when you look at Trevor Thomas Fowler’s Fortune Teller from 1836. The prominent bare shoulder of the receiver, her disheveled hair, and visible chemise under her loose dress suggest a sexuality that is not romantic, but prurient. In all its forms, fortune telling was considered un-Christian, readily associated with impropriety, deceitfulness, and even wickedness. At a minimum, fortune telling was considered too feminine and frivolous.
William McGregor Paxton moves tea reading from a modest African-American home to an elegant Boston parlor. Here, the ennui of the two affluent women weighs down the painting, sucking out its mystery. The women become beautiful objects, leisurely displayed in their Gilded Age parlor, rather than active creators of their future.
Tea drinking has been a drawing room ritual since Dutch opened up trade with the Chinese in the 1600s. These artists integrate tea-drinking with the mysteries of love, bringing fortune-telling to the parlor. Roseland solidifies the experience as distinctively American by introducing a racial element to the reader and receiver.
As you can imagine, reading tea leaves became a skill to nurture. Tasseography, the study of the leaves, outlines a method and set of interpretations for common symbols. Traditionally, symbols like hearts, rings, snakes, mountains and clocks had standardized meanings, passed down from generation to generation. While we may not be part of that chain, you can look up common interpretations on this website:
So definitely try this at home. Drink your tea, then shake the cup. Look for patterns formed by the leaves and for shapes you can identify between the leaves, on the cup itself. White cups were originally used, as a stark contrast to the dark colored tealeaves. Over time, tasseography became so popular that specially decorated cups and saucers for tea readers were included in bulk purchases of tea. Choose your favorite mug or a dainty teacup. Experiment. Have fun with it.
Historically, reading the white of the cup suggested good fortune, while the black tea leaves formed the ‘bad’ symbols. These distinctions between white-good and black-bad subtly reinforced racial attitudes. Which brings us back to Roseland. Reading Tea Leaves gives us a glimpse into the massive social changes in his day. The urban young woman and intuitive, older African American link the future of the country with its past. That the painting is infused with ambiguity and uncertainty coincides with the mood of the early years of the new century. What do the leaves really foretell for this young woman?
We do know the future for our artist. Harry Roseland, a lifelong Brooklyn resident, became well known for his nostalgic images of farm hands and watermen, as well as fortune tellers. Then, in 1908, just two years after Reading Tea Leaves was painted, eight artists had a breakthrough exhibit in New York City, challenging conventional ideas about art. These Ashcan School artists and their gritty works of city life made the polish and sentimentality of Roseland’s paintings look old-fashioned, and his images faded from prominence.
Yet can the future ever be old-fashioned?
Come to NBMAA to take in Roseland’s painting, then works by the Ashcan School, to decide for yourself.