Forensic Friday #8: A River of Misfortune

Dr. Eleanor McQuillen’s Crime Scene Painting A River of Misfortune

A River of Misfortune .5

Like her previous painting, my mom has once again hidden someone’s untimely death in a bucolic setting. And once again she leaves clues to the victim’s demise. The curves of the surrounding hills focus the viewer on the bright red and broken canoe trapped in the whitewater rapids. A series of large stones jutting out of the river and a wayward paddle lead the viewer’s eyes to a hand clawing for air. The note that accompanies this painting, “Canoe/Drowning” confirms our worst fears.

As with her previous paintings, I am confident that the overall composition is a “collaboration” with another folk artist. Even so, I find her rendering of the trees, clouds, and rocks to be especially refined. And her decorative frame adds a nice visual touch.

The more I reflect on these paintings, the more I see a mother’s anxieties coming through. While my mother loved Vermont’s pastoral beauty, she never really embraced the outdoors. I don’t think she was ever in a canoe or on skis. In these past two paintings she doesn’t show an identifiable victim, as if it could be anyone. Maybe these paintings were her way of warning her family about the dangers of their own outdoor endeavors? Of course if she really wanted to warn us away from things she didn’t understand, she would have painted golf course scenes with golfers dying in droves.

Next weeks crime scene painting centers around a barn fire with Smoke Rings, Death Calls.

Teaching Opportunity

Adopt a detective’s perspective when looking at this painting and use three simple questions to frame a class discussion.

  • What is going on in this picture?
  • What do you see that makes you say that?
  • What more can we find?

Decide if and when to share the title of the painting as it may guide, or overly influence, the way students view the work. You will also need to decide if it is beneficial to share the back story that this is a crime scene painting and is painted by one of the crime scene investigators for her child as a way to share life’s thoughts and lessons.


  1. Jenny
    Jenny November 8, 2014 at 1:07 pm .

    Or a viewer says, “thank God we got rid of that red canoe!”

  2. Jenny
    Jenny November 8, 2014 at 2:09 am .

    Um… I hope that’s not a red Mad River canoe… “It all started with a crack in the bow…”

    1. Charles McQuillen
      Charles McQuillen November 8, 2014 at 12:53 pm .

      A viewer brings crucial meaning and interpretation to every work of art. If a viewer feels guilty about selling a cracked red canoe to some poor unsuspecting friend, then that is what they might see in the picture. Of course, were that the case, it may change the findings of this incident from “accidental death” to “homicide.” Please note the Mad River canoes are extremely durable and may only crack if they are stored contrary to the owner manual specification.

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