Opportunity costs

How do you juggle a family, work and other responsibilities with painting?

Working Woman (with Earring), 1910, etching, Käthe Kollwitz, courtesy Brooklyn Museum

“I’m struggling with demands of a family and trying to carve out time for my work. Home schooling, constant interruptions, managing household stuff. I’m struggling to find a place in it all for myself,” wrote a poster on Facebook this week.

When I had my twins in 1989, there was a pernicious canard that women could ‘have it all.’ I was juggling infant twins and a job in an arts organization. A reporter called to do the requisite story on this new mode of working motherhood. She asked me how I was doing. “Not very well!” I snapped. That wasn’t the answer her editor wanted, so she didn’t write the story.

Kandinsky with the Art Dealer Goltz at Aimillerstrasse 36, Munich, 1912, by Gabriele Münter. She let her relationship with Kandinsky dominate her life. That hampered her career.

Three decades later, it’s even more difficult. Today’s young mothers are also hybrid-schooling their kids. This combines the rigidity of the classroom with the demands of the child’s actual presence. My daughter and son-in-law balance their obligations by getting up in the small hours of the morning to do their salaried work. Shades of my mother in the 70s, who went back to college after having six kids. She studied in the wee hours.

I don’t advocate that as a long-term strategy. Chronic sleep deprivation is terrible for your health.

There have been successful women artists through history. They tended to be childless or post-menopausal, as in the case of Anna Mary Robertson Moses. She was from a large family and hired out as a farm hand at age 12. She married and delivered ten children, five of whom lived to adulthood. She really didn’t have time to paint in earnest until she retired and moved in with a daughter. She was 78.

The Young Couple, 1904, etching, Käthe Kollwitz, courtesy Brooklyn Museum

The great exception to this was the German expressionist, Käthe Kollwitz. On her marriage in 1891, she insisted on household help so she could pursue her vocation. The result is some of the most stark and meaningful art of the 20thcentury.

Kollwitz realized that she had to treat her artwork as a real job or it would be swamped by household demands. That meant hiring out the cleaning and childcare. Too many women artists think they can sneak the artwork in around their domestic duties. That doesn’t respect the importance and demands of either homemaking or art.

But don’t think this is a dilemma limited to women. I have a friend who’s a well-known painter. He has four kids, so he works nights at a big-box store to cover expenses.

Sugaring Off, 1955, Grandma Moses. None of her earlier experiences were a ‘waste of time’ in terms of her art. They informed everything she painted.

The successful professional artist has much in common with the successful entrepreneur. He or she must be risk-tolerant, willing to work long hours, and able to strip the chaff away from daily life, creating periods of focus and isolation. As with all self-employed people, the artist’s job is a balance of creative work, business management, and—yes—interruptions.

That focus can be tough on the other members of your household. I have a friend whose boyfriend continually complained about her traveling to plein air events. As painting was essential and he wasn’t, he had to go.

COVID has, ironically, freed us from some of our great time wasters—travel, shopping, and entertainment. But we all still have habits, tasks or hobbies that use time. If you want to succeed as a professional artist, you must weigh their importance. There are some, like family, that are priceless, so choose wisely. Be patient with yourself and realize we’re all juggling the same things.

One messed-up dude

But Egon Schiele certainly could paint a lovely boat.

Segelschiffe im wellenbewegtem Wasser (Der Hafen von Triest), 1907, Egon Schiele, private collection
I have a hard time loving the work of Egon Schiele. Erotic paintings, emaciated figures, and anguished self-portraits leave me cold. I far prefer the Expressionism of Käthe Kollwitz and Gabriele Münter. They weren’t happy, either, but at least they had something real to complain about.
Then my friend Bruce McMillan introduced me to Schiele’s boat paintings. They don’t quite make up for all those tortured people, but they’re beautifully drawn and kinetic. Interestingly, the highest auction prices for Schiele’s work are not for his erotica, but for his landscapes, including the record-setting Häuser mit bunter Wäsche ‘Vorstadt’ II, which sold for $40.1 million in 2011.
Boote im Hafen von Triest, 1908, Egon Schiele, courtesy Landesmuseum Niederösterreich
There’s no question that Schiele was a prodigy. At 16, he was the youngest student ever to enroll at Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts. After three years, he quit without graduating. In school and after, he was mentored by Gustav Klimt, who did much to advance his career.
“Klimt was an established star and Schiele a cocksure student when the two first met in 1908,” wroteLaura Cumming. “But it is immediately obvious… that their obsessions were already mutual.”
Klimt had innumerable affairs and fathered 14 children out of wedlock. But he was staid compared to his protégée, who was completely amoral in matters of sexuality. Schiele was incestuously attracted to his sister Gerti, to the great consternation of their father (who went on to die of syphilis himself). At age 16, Schiele took Gerti, then 12, by train to Trieste and spent the night with her. 
At 21, he met Walburga (Wally) Neuzil, age 17, one of Klimt’s models. Aspiring to leave ‘repressive’ Vienna behind, the couple moved to a small Bohemian village. Driven out due to their lifestyle, they moved to slightly-larger Neulengbach. There, Schiele was accused of seducing a young girl and making pornographic images available to children. Although the rape charge was eventually dropped, he spent a month in jail for the pictures.
Dampfer und Segelboote im Hafen von Triest, watercolor, pencil and gouache on Japan paper, 1912, Egon Schiele
Back in Vienna, he wrote a friend, “I intend to get married, advantageously. Not to Wally.” Instead, he’d picked out Edith Harms, from a good middle-class family. As a former prostitute and artist’s model, Wally was a professional liability. Schiele proposed that he and Wally continue their relationship, vacationing together every summer without Edith. Wally indignantly refused.
Four days after the wedding, Egon Schiele was drafted into the army. He was given a job as a clerk in a POW camp. There, he drew and painted imprisoned Russian officers, nicking extra rations for himself and Edith on the side.
Die Brücke, 1913, Egon Schiele, private collection
By 1917, Schiele was back in Vienna. He was invited to participate in the Vienna Secession’s 49th exhibition in 1918, with a prodigious 50 works in the show. His success was spectacular. Demand—and prices—for Schiele’s work rose rapidly.
It was, alas, a short-lived triumph. In autumn of that year, Spanish flu pandemicreached Vienna. Edith and their unborn child died on October 28. Schiele lived just three days more. He was just 28.
It’s tempting to wonder what marriage, parenthood, and maturity would have done to temper the wild excesses of his youth, or how it would have changed his style. But, had he lived to ripe old age, Schiele would have also experienced the annexation of Austria by the Nazis twenty years later. It’s hard to imagine he would have prospered.

Why do you do what you do?

It is possible to be a successful woman artist and mother, if one has an exceptional husband, good time-management skills, and an iron will.
Daddy’s little helper, 2015, Carol L. Douglas
Yesterday I was reveling in the simplicity of my job. I had planned no deep thinking; it would be a day alone with my brushes.
That never works. “Why do you do what you do?” asked a regular reader.
The easy answer is that it’s the only thing I know how to do. A little honesty compels me to admit that this isn’t entirely true. I can write. I could retire if I want. Clearly, something besides necessity drives me.
In fact, my reader sensed that. “Why do you teach, travel all over the place, produce as much work as you do?” she continued. “Is working at that pace a habit, or something deeper?”
Maternité, 1890, Mary Cassatt. Cassatt, the greatest painter of the mother-child bond, had no children of her own.
Yes, I was raised to work hard, and it’s an ingrained habit. Still, I do take time off. A chance conversation with a Mennonite contractor years ago turned me into a Sabbatarian. He explained what a tremendous gift a regularly-scheduled Sabbath day was. There are a few weekends a year I can’t take off, but in general, you’ll find me working six days and resting on the seventh.
I like painting and I like being on the road. I like the challenge of sizing up new places and trying to reformat them to a 12X16 canvas.
But mostly, I work like this because I can. It’s a pleasure and a shock to be free of day-to-day responsibility for others. Yesterday, I mentioned a Tracey Eminquote about parenting. Here it is in full:
I would have been either 100% mother or 100% artist. I’m not flaky and I don’t compromise. Having children and being a mother… It would be a compromise to be an artist at the same time. I know some women can. But that’s not the kind of artist I aspire to be. There are good artists that have children. Of course there are. They are called men. It’s hard for women. It’s really difficult, they are emotionally torn. It’s hard enough for me with my cat.
When I first started painting full time, another woman artist told me much the same thing. The evidence supported her statement. Most artists (of either gender) in our circle were childless. Those with children also had wives who supported both their family and their art careers.
Mutter mit Jungen, 1933, Käthe Kollwitz. Kollwitz is an exception to rule that says mothers can’t make good artists.
That realization came close to derailing me. I was struggling to make enough time for my kids and art, but the historical reality seemed to be that women with children would always be second-rate painters.
I’m glad I didn’t learn that before the kids were irrevocable. They’re certainly the best work I’ve ever done.
Now that I’m beyond child-care, I think it’s a case where history is not necessarily destiny. Gender roles have changed tremendously in the last century. It is possible for a woman to combine competent child-rearing and any career, provided she has an exceptional husband, good time-management skills, and an iron will.
But the question my reader asked is an important one. There are many easier ways to live. Why do we do what we do?

Institutional Thuggery

If we let the United Airlines mugging go unpunished, we can kiss our democracy goodbye.
The Third of May 1808, 1814, Francisco Goya, Prado

For most of human history, citizens have, rightly, feared their governments or their neighbor’s governments. Ever since we ceded the power of defense to men on horseback, we’ve been in a battle for control. Much of the time the knights on horseback were the winners.

The 20th century was the age of the dystopian novel, because it was a century where governments repeatedly killed millions of their own and others’ citizens. My generation was educated on Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Fahrenheit 451, Alas, Babylon, and A Clockwork Orange. These books warned us about our governments, but didn’t see the American corporation as a possible threat to our liberty and privacy.
Every morning, when I finish writing this blog, I look at Google Analytics. It tells me the age and gender of people who read my blog and website, where you live, what you’re interested in, and how long you tarry. That’s pretty low-level data mining, but it’s as much information as I want.  Others use your browsing and buying habits for more direct marketing. That, for example, is how the ads are populated in your Facebook feed and why you keep getting on more and more email lists.
Sturm (Riot), 1897, Käthe Kollwitz
Since President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned us about “unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military–industrial complex” in his farewell address, there have been scattered warnings about the potential dangers of collusion between government and business. This week’s news story of a man being dragged off a United flight is an example of why we should worry more about this than about our government alone. A government employee (a Chicago Department of Aviation security officer) was used to drag a passenger from a plane owned by the world’s fourth-largest airline. The citizen has very few tools to resist that combination of power.
I am reminded of an incident from the end of the Roman Republic. Publius Clodius Pulcher was an aristocrat who knew that success was to be had by masquerading as one of the guys. As Tribune, he passed populist legislation that culminated in the disastrous free grain dole. He also deregulated gangs. That meant that thugs could roam Roman streets threatening anyone who opposed our man Clodius. In the end, that violence cost Clodius’ own life, but it was also the end of representational government in Rome.
Students of more modern history will remember the role played by the Sturmabteilung (SA) in destabilizing already-tottering Germany to make room for the Nazis.
St Just Tin Miners, 1935, Harold C. Harvey , Royal Cornwall Museum
Jackbooted thugs can never be allowed to function with impunity, whether they’re acting on behalf of the government or an airline. They must be ruthlessly suppressed through the courts, in the marketplace, and in public discussion. That includes through art.

Do we, as artists, have the chops and courage to paint such scenes?  Or have we been diddling with ‘concept’ for so long that none of us can describe reality with our brushes? It’s easy to spray-paint slogans on a wall and pretend that’s art. It’s much more demanding to reproduce the faces of suffering, as did Käthe Kollwitz, Francisco Goya, and many others who came before us.

Massacre in Aleppo

“Diaspora,” by Hope M. Ricciardi, remembers the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1923.

“Diaspora,” by Hope M. Ricciardi, remembers the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1923.
The UN believes around 50,000 civilians are still trapped inside rebel-held East Aleppo, Syria. They were to be evacuated this morning but latest reports are that the buses sent to carry them out remain idle and shelling has resumed.
This is certainly the worst holocaust of the new millennium. The trapped include a large number of children, who have been the most vulnerable victims of the bombings all along. At least 82 civilians, including women and children, were shot on Monday, according to a spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. One imagines it will get worse.
Now comes the inevitable hand-wringing. As Julie Lenarz writes in a heartbreaking essay in the Telegraph, we’re once again reduced to saying, “never again” when it’s already too late.
“The Third of May 1808,” 1814, Francisco Goya

“The Third of May 1808,” 1814, Francisco Goya
Aleppo is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Located at one end of the Silk Road, it was a cosmopolitan mix of the world’s people. In the 20th century, after the Suez Canal had bypassed it as a trading center, it became a refuge for Armenian Christians fleeing genocide (some of whose descendants are now trapped).
Modern Aleppo was home to more than 2 million people, some of whom have escaped and many of whom have been killed. We had the opportunity to intervene when the costs were lower; we inexplicably sat on our hands. Today a consortium of Russia, a genocidal dictator (Assad) and the world’s leading state sponsor of Islamic terrorism (Iran) control most of the city. And there’s no hope anymore of moderate rebellion: what’s left are jihadists. It’s a terrible indictment of our role as the world’s superpower, and it also points out that ignoring festering problems never works.

“Die Gefangenen,” (The Prisoners), 1908, Käthe Kollwitz

“Die Gefangenen,” (The Prisoners), 1908, Käthe Kollwitz
Last week I saw a headline that called our Japanese internment camps “concentration camps.” There’s a line of thinking that says our government is as flawed as Nazi Germany’s. It’s a kind of reverse Holocaust denial, promoting the idea that we have no right to intervene in other governments’ dirty business, since we’re just as bad.
There will always be historical revisionists. And that’s where art comes in. Through history, artists have used their skill to create indelible records of the horrors inflicted upon the weak by the strong. Often, it took great courage for them to record their impressions. I pray that none of us are ever called to witness such events. But if we are, may we have the courage to use our pencils to tell the truth.
“The Great Nanjing Massacre,” 1992, Zi Jian Li

“The Great Nanjing Massacre,” 1992, Zi Jian Li
It’s almost Christmas, of course, and my thoughts inevitably turned to practical matters. I stopped at Renys for more wrapping paper. As I checked out, I heard a clerk making a phone call. “Your layaway was paid by a generous customer,” she told the person on the line. “You can come and pick it up now.”
That can’t erase the atrocities in Aleppo, but it does remind me that mankind is also capable of kindness. Evil may seem to have us by the short hairs, but it is countered by quiet virtue. As long as that’s true, there’s hope for us all. Pray for peace, remember war’s victims, and be grateful for the light that shines in your own backyard.

Don’t knock it until you try it

Baby Jake, tiny sketch by me while he slept in my lap.

There is a meme panning ugly Renaissance babies. Every time it pops up, I’m reminded that the posters have most likely never painted a baby from life.

Most of my successful artist pals are childless. This makes perfect sense in the modern world, for fine arts is a career path that requires long hours for little remuneration, and that often requires travel or living in a child-hostile place like NYC. This means that children and motherhood are generally not subjects for serious modern painting, except in portraiture.

I’ve done two baby portraits, and both were done from photos. Babies wiggle, they have unreliable schedules, and when they’re not sleeping, they’re often hungry or upset about something inscrutable.

Tiny gesture drawing of baby Jake. His center of gravity is certainly his bottom, although that head weighs a lot, too.
This weekend I had my infant grandson with me. I’d hoped to paint him during my class, but there were too many students. After class, he and I sat down to rest, and he fell asleep on my lap. I was able to fish a tiny (3.5X5”) sketchbook off the coffee table with my spare hand, and do the attached sketches.

A fast sketch of Jake’s wonderful face before he twisted away again. It’s really hard to get the baby head’s proportions right.
When we do gesture drawings in class I tell my students to look for the “axis of power” in the figure—the place from which the subject’s motion is springing. Usually that’s the pelvis; less frequently, it’s the shoulders. In the case of a young infant, I believe that’s usually his rump. He is learning to control his limbs, he pushes himself up with his legs and then collapses, and when he settles down against you, you inevitably end up patting his bottom.

Tiny gesture drawing of baby Jake as he wiggled himself to sleep.
There have been very few painters who focused on children. Mary Cassatt—who was unmarried and childless—was one; Kathe Kollwitz—who had childcare so she could concentrate on her career—was another. It’s a pity that we dismiss a subject that’s of such primal importance, for all of us at one time or another have been babies or parents.
Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2015 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.

A personal aside

Selbstbildnis, mit der Hand an der Stirn (Self-portrait, hand at the forehead), etching, 1910, by Käthe Kollwitz,  

Forty-five years ago, I was at a school pool in Niagara County, New York, when my sister had a brain bleed. She died. With us were my friend S. and her mom, although at the time they seemed tangential to the tragedy that engulfed my family.

It was compounded four years later when my brother—who happened to be S.’s classmate—was killed by a drunk driver.
Sorrowful old man, pencil, black lithographic crayon, wash, white opaque watercolor, on watercolor paper, by Vincent Van Gogh, 1882
We move on. Our flock tends to be made of birds of the same coloration. And I think I’m probably an unmotivated intellectual. Why, just yesterday, I was discussing Steiner and Kandinsky and their daft color theories with three dear friends. This is fun, it’s fluff, and no more or less meaningful than talking football is for other people.
I haven’t seen S. in years, but through the miracle of Facebook, we’re in loose contact.
Last evening, my mom died. I refuse to discuss my grief with anyone, but it is substantial.
And then S. posted this video:
For the first time I understand what it meant to praise God from the depths of grief. That’s wisdom, and it’s a far greater thing than knowledge.

Message me if you want information about next year’s workshops.

Who’s crazy now?

The Prisoners, 1908, Käthe Kollwitz, from A Weaver’s Revolt.
Yesterday, a reader sent me this, after commenting that Käthe Kollwitz’ Woman with Dead Child was a frightening drawing: “It is believed Käthe Kollwitz suffered from anxiety during her childhood due to the death of her siblings. More recent research suggests that Kollwitz may have suffered from a childhood neurological disorder called Alice in Wonderland syndrome, commonly associated with migraines and sensory hallucinations…”
One presumes part of this fantastical diagnosis has to do with the monumental scale of Kollwitz’ work, since Alice in Wonderland syndrome includes seeing things as either really big or really small. Part of the nature of sculpture is its monumentality, but Kollwitz was a woman. Nobody says this kind of thing about Henry Moore, so evidently there are still art critics out there who suffer from visual gender dimorphism.
The Carmagnole (Dance Around the Guillotine), 1901, Käthe Kollwitz.
Kollwitz was a misfit. She was born in Bismarck’s Prussia; she was three years old when the Franco-Prussian War started. Yet her parents and grandparents were dissident, religious, pacifist socialists who thought enough of her potential as an artist to send her to Munich to study.
A glimpse of the happy girl whom the woman might have become: Kollwitz’ self portrait from 1889.
As a woman artist, she is almost unique in having had the unconditional support of both her father and husband to pursue her career.  She married a socialist doctor, Dr. Karl Kollwitz, who worked among Berlin’s poor. But their own political beliefs could not inoculate them against tragedy. Their two sons, Hans and Peter, immediately enlisted at the outbreak of hostilities in June, 1914.
“The whole thing is so ghastly and insane. Occasionally there comes that foolish thought: how can they possibly take part in such madness? And at once the cold shower: they must, must!” she wrote.
The Grieving Parents, 1932, Käthe Kollwitz, now in Diksmuide, West Flanders, Belgium. This was executed as a memorial to her son Peter, who died at Diksmuide.
Later that year, Peter was killed at the Battle of the Yser in Diksmuide, Belgium—one of a staggering 140,000 casualties over two weeks. Kollwitz sought peace in her work and could not find it. “When [the grief] comes back I feel it stripping me physically of all the strength I need for work. Make a drawing: the mother letting her dead son slide into her arms. I might make a hundred such drawings and yet I do not get any closer to him. I am seeking him. As if I had to find him in the work… For work, one must be hard and thrust outside one-self what one has lived through. As soon as I begin to do that, I again feel myself a mother who will not give up her sorrow.”
As lifelong socialists, the couple worked actively to combat the rise of fascism. Adolph Hitler responded by demanding that Kollwitz resign from the Prussian Academy of Arts and banning Dr. Kollwitz from practicing medicine.  “For fourteen years… I have worked together peacefully with these people. Now the Academy directors have had to ask me to resign. Otherwise the Nazis had threatened to break up the Academy. Naturally I complied.”
Mother with Two Children, 1932-36, Käthe Kollwitz.
By then, Kollwitz was a world-famous artist and they were invited to seek asylum elsewhere. They refused, fearing reprisals against their family. Instead, they made a mutual suicide pact in the event of a return visit by the Gestapo. Dr. Kollwitz died in 1940 and they lost a grandson, also named Peter, on the Russian Front in 1942. Their house and much of her work was destroyed by British bombers in November, 1943.
Kollwitz died on April 22, 1945, two weeks before the cessation of European hostilities. “War accompanies me to the end,” she wrote.
Hunger, 1923, Käthe Kollwitz
Kollwitz’ work speaks in the universal language of death, poverty, grief, war and famine, which is why her work has had such a lasting impact. But these were not what she set out to paint. “How can one cherish joy when there is really nothing that gives joy? And yet the imperative is surely right. For joy is really equivalent to strength.”

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

That’s insane.

Woman with Dead Child, 1903, Kathe Kollwitz. The majority of 20th century artists presented madness and grief as a terrifying spectacle. Kollwitz, uniquely, empathized with those who were suffering.

Last week when I wrote about modern culture’s inexorable squeeze toward a single mode of thinking, I had a vague idea that it might be interesting to look at how madness has been painted. This proved more difficult than I expected.
Insane Woman, 1822, Théodore Géricault, from his Monomania series.
The modern era has just too much to choose from—Edward Munch’s The Scream, Van Gogh’s self-portrait sans ear, the entire oeuvre of German Expressionism.  Théodore Géricault’s Monomania series has a certain appeal, since they were an experiment in using art in the service of science. The trouble is, the subjects look less mad than grumpy, and they’re a singularly uninviting bunch of paintings.
Géricault’s criminally insane subjects seem almost normal in comparison with his Romantic portraits, but he came of age during the French Revolution. In such circumstances, there is a blurred line between sanity and insanity. Géricault himself studied the heads of guillotine victims because he believed that character was most revealed in extremis. Nothing nuts about that, is there?

St. Bartholomew Exorcising, c. 1440-1460, the Master of the St. Bartholomew Altarpiece. Although we don’t know the identity of this painter, about 25 of his works have survived. It is presumed that he was trained in the Netherlands, although he worked in Cologne; he is considered to have been the last Gothic painter active in that city.
For all the stuff that is in there, “demonic possession” is not recognized in any versions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). However, psychiatry, as a discipline, is a little more than 150 years old; exorcism has been with us since the dawn of time and spans religious barriers. It has been practiced historically in almost every major religion that believes that man has a soul.

Desperation, 1306. In this fresco, Giotto attributed suicide to the presence of a demon, top left.
Goya painted St. Francis de Borja performing the rite of exorcism at least twice. By the time he was painting, exorcisms were in sharp decline in the western world, ushered out by the Age of Reason. Oddly enough there has been a sharp rise in exorcisms since the middle of the 20thcentury. Perhaps this is a romantic notion spawned by television and movies, or it may represent our disaffection with psychiatry.

San Francisco de Borja attends a dying unrepentant sinner, c. 1788, by Francisco Goya. Fr. Francis was an early leader of the Jesuit order, and was widely regarded during his own lifetime as a saint. Goya depicted this 16th century exorcism from a more modern viewpoint than Fr. Francis’s contemporary would have; the beasts waiting to devour the unrepentant soul are not concrete.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Joan of Arc

My friend John Nicholson and I have decided to try a new project. I will choose a painting based on a Biblical theme and write about it from an artist’s viewpoint; John will write about it from a pastor’s perspective on his blog, The Shepherd’s Staff.

John is a Baptist pastor from Alabama; I am an artist from New York. Can we find enough common ground in our Christian faith to make this work?

Joan of Arc, 1879, Jules Bastien-Lepage (French, 1848–1884)
Oil on canvas; 100 x 110 in. (254 x 279.4 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Jules Bastien-Lepage’s portrait of Joan of Arc at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York never fails to make me catch my breath. I wander away from Rosa Bonheur’s gigantic The Horse Fair, which is a monumental, formal study of controlled energy, and am slapped in the face by The Maid of Orléans.

Joan of Arc was born into a bleak moment in French history. France and England were entering the penultimate phase of the Hundred Years’ War. The English had captured huge swathes of territory and secured the French crown under the Treaty of Troyes, which also declared the Dauphin Charles VII illegitimate. The French countryside was bearing the brunt of a century of fighting, depredation, and the Black Death 75 years earlier.

At about age 13, Joan began to hear voices. Eventually, she sorted these voices to be those of St. Catherine of Alexandria, St. Margaret of Antioch, and the archangel Michael. These coalesced into visions. At her trial, she said: “I saw them with these very eyes, as well as I see you.”

By the time she was 16, her heavenly counselors had become more insistent and specific. She never recounted her visions at her trial, but there is a record of them that slightly predates the relief of Orléans. A Flemish diplomat named De Rotslaer recorded “that she would save Orléans and would compel the English to raise the siege, that she herself in a battle before Orléans would be wounded by a shaft but would not die of it, and that the King, in the course of the coming summer, would be crowned at Reims, together with other things which the King keeps secret.”

The story of her initial rejection (“Take her home to her father and give her a good whipping”) and eventual triumph is worth studying. Two details touch me. The first is that the Dauphin subjected her to a careful theological examination before entrusting his troops to her. The second is that her career ended abruptly after her visions were fulfilled.

Jules Bastien-Lepage was part of a movement in European art and literature known as naturalism. This embraced realism but often was invested with an awareness of the condition of the poor, which in some cases makes the art into manifesto (see Charles Dickens as an example). At the same time, the nineteenth century saw an enormous population shift from the countryside to the cities, so there are elegiac overtones in the genre.

Jean-François Millet (1814-1875)
Gleaners, also called, The Gleaners
Oil on canvas
Musée d’Orsay
(for a far better, copy-protected reproduction, see

Bastien-Lepage was temperamentally the heir of Jean-François Millet, who painted the incomparable Gleaners. About Millet, the Catholic Encyclopedia of 1913 said, “he has shown us how the trivial can be made to serve in the expression of the sublime, and how the Infinite and the Divine can be discerned in the humblest existence.” Vincent Van Gogh, Honoré Daumier, and Bastien-Lepage also had that sympathy, although it was tuned differently in each of them.

Bastien-Lepage painted Joan of Arc after the Franco-Prussian War. With their empire ruined and Alsace-Lorraine taken, the French identified powerfully with Joan. Bastien-Lepage’s painting is thus nationalistic, but to regard it as mere propaganda would trivialize it.

For one thing, there is the question of identification. Both the artist and the subject were from Lorraine. Joan was a peasant heroine and Bastien-Lepage was a peasant painter. She must have been an irresistible subject.

Jules Bastien-Lepage
Hay Making (Les foins), 1877
Oil on canvas
Musée d’Orsay (see here)

Bastien-Lepage’s most famous painting was Hay Making. Because it is a smaller and simpler canvas than Joan of Arc, you can make out the technique more easily on your monitor. His technique looks peculiar to us today. He married controlled realism in the figures to Impressionism in the background. These are two radically different ways of seeing and painting. As odd as this seems now, photography and Impressionism were both new in 1877, with no rigid rules. In fact, he synthesized the two approaches beautifully.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau
Tricoteuse, 1879
Owned privately

To understand the academic virtues of his painting, compare Joan of Arc to William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s Tricoteuse, painted the same year (Bouguereau vies with Caravaggio as the best painter of feet ever). The figures share the same perfection of drawing and modeling. But there the resemblance ends. In his best work, Bastien-Lepage used perfection only where it advanced his narrative, and there he pushed it to a photographic clarity—Joan’s loosely-laced jacket, the muddy shoes on the reaper. Bouguereau distilled detail to an ideal. His girl is an archetype of poverty, frozen in time.

In Joan of Arc, Bastien-Lepage introduced Catholic symbolism archaically, so we can almost read this painting like an icon. Joan’s own discarded spinning wheel (covered with wool so coarse we can practically smell it) stands in for St. Catherine’s wheel. Michael’s sword (Joshua 5:13–15) hovers in the air as a portent of the sword Joan would later find behind the altar in the chapel of Saint Catherine de Fierbois.

You can easily see Bastien-Lepage’s Impressionistic brushwork in the background of Hay Making, but it is also the device that allows the three saints to shimmer in Joan of Arc (we just can’t see it online). Moreover, he shoves us into the picture with Impressionist abruptness. We sense we’ve stumbled across Joan in her back garden. Compare this to Gleaners, which is profoundly powerful, but far more classical in its structure.

Nevertheless, Bastien-Lepage was not remotely an Impressionist. It is always Joan’s face to which I first respond. Her moment is awful in the deepest sense of the word. It is not that she has shut us out; instead, she seems to have stopped completely. Today many people see that frozen look as a failure, the result of painting from a reference photo. I disagree. It is a face of transfixion, of awed intelligence. After all, the face of the tedder in Hay Making, is hardly photographic, even though the painter was using the same technique. She is loose-jawed, beyond exhaustion.

This is where Bastien-Lepage diverges from the earlier naturalist painters. Millet saw nobility in the peasants’ suffering; Bastien-Lepage looked forward to the bleakness of the coming century. In the eyes of Joan and the tedder in Hay Makers, there are glimpses of the deep psychological pain of the German Expressionist Käthe Kollwitz.

Bastien-Lepage died young (at 36) and much of his work is either schmaltz or unformed. But some of it veers into greatness. I have to wonder what he would have produced had he lived longer.

(You can peruse Bastien-Lepage’s œuvre online here. You can read the transcript of Joan’s heresy trial here, and the nullification trial here.) In researching this, I also came across the delightful and idiosyncratic Hay in Art.)