From the Collection: Elizabeth Forbes’s Will-o’-the-Wisp


Elizabeth Forbes (Canadian, 1859-1912)"Will-o'-the-Wisp", ca. 1900, oil on canvas, 27 x 44 in. On loan from the Wilhelmina and Wallace Holladay Collection

Based on the richly symbolic poem The Fairies by the Irish poet William Allingham, Elizabeth Forbes’s Will-o’-the-Wisp depicts the story of Bridget, who was stolen by the “wee folk” and brought up to the mountains for seven years. When Bridget returned to her village, she found that her friends were all gone.

Set in autumn with bare trees silhouetted against a moonlit sky, the triptych’s dark rocks, swirling mist, and eerie glow in the sky convey a mystical quality to this scene featuring Bridget, the “stolen child…dead with sorrow…on a bed of flag leaves.” In the left panel of the painting, little forest denizens, who in Irish legends often entice young girls with sensory pleasures, troop through the forest.

Will-o’-the-Wisp displays the tenets of the Newlyn Art School in its meticulous portrayal of natural detail. Yet the painting’s mythical world shares characteristics with late Pre-Raphaelite works, as does the elaborately hand wrought oak frame that incorporates sheets of copper embossed with intertwined branches imitating the painted tree limbs. Lines from Allingham’s poem inscribed along the sides and bottom of the frame allude to the centuries-old philosophical dialogue between the relative artistic merits of painting versus poetry.

Will-o’-the-Wisp may have been commissioned by a private collector. Its unusual three-panel format suggests that it was created for a specific location, perhaps over a large mantel.

Nancy G. Heller, Ph.D, is a professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and an art historian.

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