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Frame by Frame

‘Saturday Afternoon,’ when the children rule

Worcester Art Museum

In 1825, Alvan T. Fisher — who was born in Needham and died in Dedham — set sail for Europe.

The first significant American landscape painter to do the Grand Tour, he studied, as proper artists were supposed to, the museums and sights of England, France, Italy, and Switzerland; the landscapes of Claude Lorraine; the ruins of Rome.

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Three years later, Fisher, who had set himself up in a shop with a sign out front on Boston’s Washington Street, painted “Saturday Afternoon,” which has been in the collection of the Worcester Art Museum for 100 years.

How many people have, like me, walked past it a dozen times before stopping to register its many delights? Combining the light of Rembrandt with the architectural space of Piranesi, Fisher (1792-1863) transposes tired modes of European high seriousness to the roguery and skylarking, the prattle and dirt-dishing of a good old American barn on an idle afternoon.

The picture evokes a wonderfully elastic, strangely boundless sense of time. The space, too, is evocative: Notice the way the light from the window at the far end of the barn not only gilds a high wall and ignites some hay but back-lights most of the figures.

The two it illuminates most strongly are the girls on the swing. How like a throne it seems! And how easy it is to imagine these two big girls affecting a demeanor of imperial boredom as they
micromanage the events of the entire afternoon.

Once you have taken in the little ground-level theater being performed for their pleasure, your eye follows the ropes of the swing up to the rafters. And there you are made to understand that, just as no monarch can ever quite control her entire demesne, no sister can ever quite neutralize the mischief of younger brothers. Barely visible in the grey attic light, clambering up ladders and climbing on beams, are several brave little Icaruses, ecstatic with altitude.

We return below and note with relief that yes, one or two adults are in attendance. Supervisors? Hardly. They’re no more alert than the horses. Be in no doubt: This is a kingdom of children. And Saturday afternoons are the inviolate empire of childhood.

Respect it, I take Fisher to be telling us. And admit that once you have left it, no tinkling sleigh, no horse and trap, no magic switch or bewitching opiate will ever take you back there. The Australian painter (and heroin addict) Brett Whiteley may have had the day of the week wrong — and he was probably high — but he tapped a beautiful truth that lurks in this painting when he said: “Life is brief, but my God Thursday afternoon seems incredibly long.”

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.
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