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My Winter Window Shelf

My Winter Window Shelf caused Robert Strong Woodward some little trouble, but trouble of the sort an artist is glad to have.

The view from the little east window was a frequent subject of his paintings at the Southwick studio, particularly when winter weather kept him inside. (One's first impression on seeing the window is that it is far smaller than the paintings done from it). As so often in his life and career, RSW made a virtue of necessity, and profited from his enforced confinement by creating the unique window pictures. In this one he counters the snow and icicles outside with a warm array of books, a lavender bottle and a blue one, and on the right side, a red geranium with a fallen petal. The glass apple was a gift from his longtime friends F. Earl and Ruth Williams.

A View of the Southwick Studio
Southwick Studio showing little East window on right
RSW considered it one of his masterpieces, created in 1945 for Edward and Win Pettis, who were building a new home on River Road in Agawam, MA. RSW had met them in the mid-1930s through the Williamses, when Mr. Williams was principal at Agawam High School. In 1938 Mr. Williams took a new position as principal of the Gardner High School, and the Williamses moved to Gardner, MA. For all the distance, these friendships flourished: the Pettises were left two paintings in RSW's will, the Williamses three.

The Pettises wanted to call their painting "Robert Strong Woodward's Winter Window Shelf." In a letter of November 18, 1945, RSW strove to dissuade them from it as "awkward and long and forced." He suggested the current title, pointing out that it "says the same thing after all, seems more wieldy and euphonious." RSW got his way (as one suspects he often did), gently cajoling them, "don't you, after all, feel satisfied with My Winter Window Shelf as a title for your painting? I hope you do."

The East Window in 2006
The East Window of the Southwick Studio as it appears today
The same letter was interrupted, coincidentally, by a visit from their mutual friends, the Williamses, who had brought another couple from Gardner to the studio. "The Murrays," he told Edward and Win, "fairly worshipped your window picture - so much so, it seems, they wouldn't buy anything else!" He told them that "Mrs. Murray gave a definite order for a window picture similar to yours, saying she will buy it the moment I make one. Although she wants a red geranium, she wants different accessories - i.e., suggests a red glass lamp in place of the lavendar bottle, etc. But she does want the Williams glass apple! What are we going to do about this? Do you mind? Of course no two pictures ever turn out exactly alike anyway - and I'll leave out the tin cup, the lavendar bottle - and will put in different books. It won't really be more like yours, than yours is like Mrs. Smith's!!"

RSW feigned exasperation: "I shan't show it here, anymore, anyway, because it is plainly preventing people from purchasing anything else of mine! This isn't the first time, this fall, this has happened! And Mrs. Murray said this afternoon that if I'd make another painting like your Winter Afternoon canvas, she would buy it at once!! - but I pointblank refuse to do that - so don't worry. You seem to be making many people green with envy!"

(Mrs. R. R. Smith, also of Gardner, had bought In the Spring in 1945, another scene out the same little east window. And Mrs Murray? She never did buy a window picture, but contented herself with a landscape composed within the studio, The Home Road.

My Winter Window Shelf was to have been made into a Christmas card that year by White and Wyckoff, manufacturers of stationery in Holyoke, MA, but labor disputes forced a postponement. Mr. Arthur S. Paine of White and Wyckoff assured RSW that they "still very definitely wish to make a card from that beautiful canvas. When you turn it over to your friends can't you, won't you, ask them for me, if I may borrow it for two months, sometime next summer, when our business turmoil gets settled?"

In The Spring
In the Spring - another painting from the little East window
Finally on May 9, 1946, Mr. Paine "came to the studio by appointment to talk over the matter [of the Christmas card], and to choose another canvas from me, which he took home with him. It is but a technical point, in that its a rule of the company that two paintings of an artist have to be submitted for choice. Mr. Paine said that in this case it was but a matter of form, as it is already positively decided to use your canvas for their 1947 Christmas card - if you can lend it to them for reproduction. He is still wildly enthusiastic about it, thinking it will be the most distinctive card they have ever had."

Of course the Pettises did loan their painting, and the card proved to be a beauty, though the color reproduction is a little too reddish.

Christmas Cards printed by White and Wyckoff of My Winter Window Shelf
Christmas Cards printed by White and Wyckoff of My Winter Window Shelf
RSW always kept a special fondness for My Winter Window Shelf, sending playful "greetings to the window canvas and the chalks - and my best to you" in a 1949 letter to the Pettises.

I love it too. When I was setting up housekeeping in my first apartment, one of my best gifts was a framed copy of this painting - from the Purintons.


The letters used in this essay were generously loaned by Martha Smead Doolittle, daughter of Dr. James and Dorothy (Wise) Smead, late of Buckland. Mrs. Doolittle is married to the son of the late Dr. and Mrs. Doolittle of Agawam, friends of Ed and Win Pettis, and Woodward aficionados themselves.