On the horizon, an arc of sun falls or rises, suspended next to her right shoulder. The curve of that shoulder and the curve of the sickle in her hand match the half circle of sun. She too is suspended, one bare foot grounded, the other raised and ready to step forward on a narrow dirt path. The line of green fields behind her is even with her waist. Her high-waisted skirt falls from just below her bosom to the middle of her calves, and she wears a dark blue apron.
From her rolled up sleeves, well-muscled arms emerge, not quite tense, not quite relaxed. Both her empty hand and the one gripping the sickle look strong. Under the shadow of her raised chin, her neckline does not cut deep, but the loose blouse is slightly open against the heavy curve of her breasts. She is looking away from the sun, slivers of hair backlit and straggling from beneath the kerchief on her head. Her mouth opens in either astonishment or song.
Jules Breton’s larger than life peasant woman draws me into its frame today. I feel a bit like the seventeen-year old protagonist in Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark, the novel named after this painting. A singer who comes to Chicago from the upper plains, Thea visits the Art Institute and rushes upstairs to the gallery: “That was her picture,” Cather writes, “She imagined that nobody cared for it but herself, and that it waited for her. That was a picture indeed. She liked even the name of it, 'The Song of the Lark.’”
So today it feels like my picture too as I sit on the wooden bench in Gallery 222 (Medieval to Modern European). I do not believe in coming to museums to worship—that’s why I attend church--but at this moment “Song of the Lark” is, at least, an icon if not an idol. I could be approaching something like prayer.
I venerate both the woman and the landscape Breton has depicted in part because I recognize the fields. I know it’s France, but the sine wave of the tree line and the pink, orange white mixture of pigments that constitute the sun could easily be the horizon of Central Illinois. I take over this foreign place as my own.
In her novel, Cather’s heroine feels the same way, but with a somewhat purer enthusiasm:
The flat country, the early morning light, the wet fields, and the look in the girl’s heavy face--well, they were all hers, anyhow, whatever was there. She told herself that that picture was 'right.' Just what she meant by this, it would take a clever person to explain. But to her the word covered the almost boundless satisfaction she felt when she looked at the picture.
I typically aspire to be the clever person, but for now I am Thea, exuberant teenage girl.
Since 1934, this work has been voted as one of the public’s favorite works in the Art Institute’s collection. For most of my afternoon, though, I have it to myself.
The rest of the pilgrims today have come to see other icons. After months and months of renovation, the Restored Cathedral of the Impressionists has reopened. The couple on the rainy Paris Street welcomes the masses. A dense semi-circle of bodies congregates around Seurat’s pointilized French island, a few uttering the sacred name of Beuller.
Others move from season to season of light on Monet’s stacks of grain. Some stroke their chins in reverence. Batches of women whisper before Degas’ little ballerinas. Quite a few sweatered men surround Renoir’s women with flowers. Later, all of us buy postcards, prints and sweatshirts. A number of years ago, you could buy the bathrobe from Mary Cassatt’s “The Child’s Bath.” If this were a temple, we would be some of the moneychangers. Got to own the art you love.
A young girl precedes her family into my gallery, she runs toward a large painting on the wall to my left.
“Ooh, look, it’s Jesus,” she hollers to her father, “and they’re stabbing him with something.”
“Yeah,” he says, “and that’s a really big Jesus, isn’t it honey?”
“No,” I want to say. “It’s paint. A dude named Manet made your giant Jesus out of oils, and if anyone, he’s the guy getting ready to stick a spear in the side of the Savior.”
I don’t say it, but I feel smug. Until right now, typing this. My lovely peasant is a pile of paint too. Right now I love her, and with a great big Jesus looking over my shoulder.
Plenty of critics liken museums to houses of worship, describing with both disdain and enthusiasm how art becomes religion when faith fades. Reversing the characterization—cathedrals have become museums minus the worship—troubles the faithful as well. I’ve written a few dozen poems myself that try to figure out what both spaces open to those who attend them.
In poetry about visual art, which goes back to Keats and his Grecian urn, and before that to the Greeks themselves (who called it “ekphrasis”), an art object gets described. Most often, then, it becomes a vehicle for the poet to be sensitive, to find in a vase or a statue the source of ecstasy, wisdom, or wit. The lovers in the vase, and in the poem, lean, suspended forever between expectation and frustration. Just about every poem boils down to Keats: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” etc. Sadly, Keats coughed himself to death. And we kept him suspended too.
Breton’s young woman probably worked herself to death. She looks like another of Cather’s heroines, Antonia Shimerda, an iconic immigrant who spends her life in the rural Midwest. Jim Burden, the novel’s narrator, grows up there too. Although he goes away, Jim never gets over his initial experiences of Antonia, images he’s revisited, remade, and reconstructed the way we do with memory.
When he returns after years to visit Antonia, Jim notices her aging and the effects of motherhood, of work and of loss on her body. But he is unable to see her that way for long. The more he looks at her: “the changes grew less apparent to me, her identity stronger. She was there, in the full vigour of her personality, battered but not diminished, looking at me, speaking to me in the husky, breathy voice I remembered so well.”
If this is worship, or love (“I’d have liked to have you for a sweetheart, or a wife, or my mother or my sister—anything that a woman can be to a man”) it’s not love of a particular, worn woman. In Jim Burden’s words again, “The idea of you is a part of my mind.”
Back to Breton. I am not fully, necessarily in love with my own flat native landscape, nor do I love the French countryside behind this young woman. I love the idea of them. I might be in love with Breton. More likely I am in love with my own sensations and cleverness, my own mind and desire.
But I desire to be in love with this woman, to know if she is singing or speaking or open-mouthed in satisfaction or awe. I want to return to the Chicago street and the cornfields a hundred miles south with Breton’s sense of light and the lark’s desire to sing.
Worship, in most Western Christian traditions at least, takes place in a set aside structure—Catholic cathedrals of stone, simple brick or clapboard buildings for the low-church Protestants, large Baptist warehouses or mega-church malls. The hope is, by coming to a place set apart, to transform, through various means (sermon, song, silence, liturgy, psycho-pop-self help) those in attendance. The purpose is to turn these people around and send us back into the world with clearer, better eyes.
For an hour or two, I have chosen and been chosen by Breton’s pile of paint in the shape of a young woman, pigment in the likeness fields and of light on a field. A single viewer cannot figure out her song. I won’t harvest grain with a sickle anytime soon.
I may, though, walk barefoot in dust. And I will wonder where, besides this wall, this woman is going. She could be headed out to work or headed home. Either way, if I join her, we both leave the frames of our world.