Urgent Museum Notice

Will-o’-the-Wisp

Close up of Will-o’-the-Wisp

An auburn-haired, light-skinned young woman occupies the central panel of a triptych. Barefoot and clad in a sleeveless white dress, she reclines on a bed of autumn leaves in a rocky, moonlit landscape. The mist at her feet obscures mice. Fairy folk frolic in the left panel.

Elizabeth Adela Armstrong Forbes, Will-O'-the-Wisp, ca. 1900; Oil on canvas, 27 x 44 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Will-o’-the-Wisp
Elizabeth Adela Armstrong Forbes

Elizabeth Adela Armstrong Forbes based her painting Will-o’-the-Wisp on the symbolic poem The Fairies by Irish poet William Allingham. She depicts the story of Bridget, who was stolen by “wee folk” and brought to the mountains for seven years. Upon returning to her village, Bridget discovers that all of her friends are gone.

Set in autumn with bare trees silhouetted against a moonlit sky, the triptych’s dark rocks, swirling mist, and eerie glow add to the mystical aura surrounding Bridget, the “stolen child…dead with sorrow…on a bed of flag leaves.” In the left panel, 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 work’s mythical world is characteristic of late Pre-Raphaelite paintings. So too is the elaborately hand-wrought oak frame, which incorporates sheets of copper embossed with intertwined tree branches. Lines from Allingham’s poem inscribed on the frame allude to the centuries-old philosophical dialogue between the relative artistic merits of painting versus poetry.

Artwork Details

  • Artist

    Elizabeth Adela Armstrong Forbes
  • Title

    Will-o’-the-Wisp
  • Date

    ca. 1900
  • Medium

    Oil on canvas
  • Dimensions

    27 x 44 in.
  • Donor Credit

    Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay
  • Photo Credit

    Lee Stalsworth
  • On Display

    Yes