Thomas Hicks (American, 1823–1890)
34.61 x 43.18 cm (13 5/8 x 17 in.)
Medium or Technique
Oil on canvas
Not On View
Thomas Hicks painted “Calculating” in a period of great financial instability. During the Panic of 1837, the American banking system collapsed and real estate, labor, and food prices plummeted. Many farmers, merchants, and plantation owners were impoverished. The depression that ensued, caused by rampant speculation promoted by banks under the economic policies of President Andrew Jackson, lasted nearly seven years. Farmers had been particularly reckless speculators. Easily enticed by get-rich-quick schemes, large numbers of them neglected their crops and gambled in stocks; many were greatly disappointed. It was in this national climate that Hicks made this small, quiet picture which, despite its modest subject, contains acute social commentary.
In a spacious barn, a man sits cross-legged and hunched over his slate of accounts, his fingers splayed in a counting gesture. The brim of his gray hat obscures his face, but his preoccupation with “calculating” identifies him as a Yankee farmer, a member of the American citizenry often satirized during the period for relentless bargaining and economic self-interest. As early as the 1780s, the character of the “Yankee” appeared in popular literature and theater as both an icon of American self-proclamation and a humorous provincial figure. In the late 1820s, actor Jack Hackett described the stereotypical Yankee as, “enterprising and hardy-cunning in bargains” as well as “superstitious and bigoted,” “familiar and inquisitive” (James Hackett’s master notebook, ca. 1827, Enthoven Collection, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, as quoted in Francis Hodge, “Yankee Theatre: The Image of America on the Stage, 1825-1850,” Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, pp. 91-92). The character began to appear in American genre painting in the 1830s, particularly in the works of Hick’s contemporary, William Sidney Mount. Despite being cleaned out by the depression, Hicks’s calculating Yankee farmer continues to pour over his financials. His barn, with its worn plaster walls and rough hewn boards, is emptied of farm equipment and swept free of hay. The chair, draped furniture, and loyal, sleeping dog suggest the barn is serving as his home.
Notwithstanding its clear connection to characteristic American social types and current events, “Calculating” is also related to seventeenth-century Dutch art. As a student at both the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the National Academy of Design ( in 1839 and 1840 respectively), Hicks likely studied engravings of Dutch genre paintings by artists such as Pieter de Hooch and Gabriel Metsu. As products of a similar republican society, these interior scenes of leering housemaids, love struck ladies, and nursing mothers were popular in antebellum America, and often served as compositional templates for artists. “Calculating,” with its open door in the right background and subtle light source from the upper left, is reminiscent of these Dutch compositions (see for example, de Hooch’s “Interior of a Dutch House,” about 1640 [03.607]). In place of a seated woman reading or sewing, Hicks’s Yankee farmer concentrates on his own sort of “housekeeping.” Hicks’s adaptation of Dutch examples, which often depict a male suitor or solicitor departing the scene, is underscored by the woman riding away on horseback. The man’s activity at his slate implies that a transaction has just occurred between the two figures, although the nature of their business remains to be known.
Reverse, before relining: "Calculating"/by T. Hicks/1844
The artist; with the American Art-Union, 1844; to George B. Upton, Nantucket, M.A., 1844; with Victor Spark, New York; to Maxim Karolik, Newport, R.I., 1950; to MFA, 1962, gift of Maxim Karolik.
Gift of Maxim Karolik for the M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Paintings, 1815–1865