Art / Architecture / Museums

Museum Mondays: Woman Eating by Duane Hanson, the Art of Character

This woman is so lifelike, so realistic, it can be debated whether this is art or a mannequin display like you’d see in a shop window. I personally think the work of Duane Hanson (1925-1996) are character studies that could drive a novel.


This again is the type of work that is easily passed by. Once you get over the fact there is a woman eating in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and realize it’s made of polyester resin and fiberglass, most people laugh and move on.

But take a look at the incredible detail, and the pathos Hanson elicits with his creation. Spend a few minutes with this woman, with her condition, her moment in life, and let her speak to you. IMG_1708

Pathos in the details:

Is that the second ice-cream sundae she’s eaten? She’s more than plump but this is 1971, a date we know from the placard, and from the newspaper and magazine on the table. Is she going home to a hot, unair-conditioned apartment? Is she lingering the restaurant’s cooled air? Or is she consoling herself after an especially rough day? Perhaps this is her daily habit at this run-down diner or Woolworths.

She’s reading about Jackie O on the gossipy tabloid before her, possibly dreaming about the lives and lifestyles of celebrities she’ll never meet. The TV Guide’s pages arc upward; it’s been read. Has she planned her TV viewing for the night, or for the week?

An ashtray has been emptied but not cleaned — Did the waitress come by to empty her over-flowing stack of cigarette butts, or is this the residue of the patron before her? Did the waitress not think her worthy of a fully clean setting? Is the woman so resigned to her circumstances that she chooses not to complain?


The Art of Character:

The time is 3 p.m. (see her wrist watch?) — that hellacious period of uncertainty for the lonely. Too late for lunch, too early for supper, a time period filled with the laughter of children as they escape from school — a happy period if you have those children in your life. Somehow, I doubt this woman does.

Under the table are a well-worn purse, and a shopping bag. Ronzoni pasta, Kellogg’s cornflakes, and Purina dog chow overflow the top. Is there a little mutt waiting for her at home? Is this the creature who gives her the affection and love no one else does?


As a writer I see loneliness pouring off of her. She is caught in a web of society’s and her own making. I want to reach out and give her a hug. If I did, she’d probably be offended and hit me with her handbag.

[The Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. (commonly known as SAAM, and sharing space with the National Portrait Gallery) houses one of the world’s largest and most inclusive collections of U.S. art, from the colonial period to the present.

For more about the art of writing character, see David Corbett’s article in Writer’s Digest, How to Craft Compelling Characters.  ]

9 replies »

  1. This exhibit always makes me sad. She’s so lonely that it’s painful to look at. But she is an interesting character and I bet you could write an entire book about what brought her to this point!

  2. At Madame Tussaud’s in London, my feet were tired so I sat on a bench next to another tired tourist. A middle-aged lady, she’d nodded off with her museum map and brochure in her lap. She wore a blue skirt and matching twin-set, with a pearl necklace. I sat quietly, not wanting to wake her. I watched the other visitors and studied the waxworks I could see from my bench. Then, sneaking a glance to see if my seat-mate’s hair was grayer than mine, I started. She too was a waxwork! I’d been totally deceived.

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