This is Mrs Witherspoon. She cooks at the orphanage, and teaches cooking. By ‘cooks’ I mean that she is incredibly adept at chopping up things and boiling them, and has an absolute confidence about what can be eaten, even if it does fight back when being dished up. In fairness to her, no one has ever died as a result of Mrs Witherspoon’s cooking, although a fair few people have chosen to go hungry instead. Learning not to be too fussy is a good life skill on Hopeless, Maine.
Like many women in history, her personal identity is obscured. Her surname is not the one she was born with. The late Mr Witherspoon – who we never really see, but whose existence can be inferred from her presence, was Reverend and orphanage manager before Reverend Davies took up the job.
In the portrait, we see her at her best, armed with the tools of her trade and the medium of her art – tentacles. However, as with Whistler’s Mother (a painting we clearly haven’t stolen from even a little bit) the woman in the image is defined by her relationship to the artist. Even as she’s represented, she’s being erased as a person in her own right. Do we succumb to the temptation to ask who the younger Witherspoon is? Are we interested in the artist? Or are we interested in the woman who has been made a subject of the art?
Mrs Witherspoon herself doesn’t say much. Like so many women whose lives have made them invisible, she’s never said much to anyone about her own experiences. She’s seen a great deal that she will never speak of. She knows secrets – most especially the secrets of the Reverends of Hopeless Maine. Her silence supports and enables. It facilitates. It does not challenge or question or offer a counter narrative. Hers is the silent complicity of women through history who have been willing to believe that the men know best and should lead and not be questioned… Women who have done this not in ignorance, but in full knowledge of what they were going along with.
Mrs Witherspoon believes in feeding orphans. She does not believe in questioning why there are so many orphans to begin with. She is not the sort of person to cause trouble by suggesting any of the things that might reduce the number of orphans in the first place. She is certainly not the sort of woman to create a scandal by letting any breath of a whisper escape into the world about how many of the orphans she has tended were actually her husband’s children.
Perhaps that’s why, if you look at the picture in the background, Witherspoon the Younger has suggested a rather unsavoury fate for Mrs Witherspoon.