Ew! Look at all his wrinkles!

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I recently heard on a French radio program a quote from the Goncourt Brother’s Journals: “Perhaps the thing that hears the most rubbish in the world is a painting in a museum.” Now, that one made me laugh out loud. Who hasn’t been in a museum, quietly looking, only to overhear some inane remark that breaks the spell underway between you and a painting? You can almost imagine the fellow in Rembrand’ts Old Man with the Gold Chain wincing several times a day when he hears comments about how old he is, how dark the painting is, how little his head looks, and how silly his hat is. Oh, wait. I’m the person who always thinks that his hat looks silly.

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And yet. I’ve spent the last few months interviewing people at the Art Institute and what strikes me is that people think, look, and are moved by art in a way that belies the insinuation of the Goncourt brothers. Take Elizabeth from Mississippi. She loved Francesco de Mura’s Charity. This is a painting I’ve looked at many times: it is a lush, sensual depiction of a young mother taking care of three children all at once; a sort of precursor to today’s multi-tasking moms. With one hand she lifts up a blanket to check on a sleeping child, turns her attention to her oldest one as he runs up to her, and suckles her newborn. Amidst all the action she is serene; amidst all the vibrant colors the creaminess of her flesh tones calm. Finally, in the bottom right of the painting there is a pelican feeding its young by drawing its own blood from its chest. This comes from medieval iconography: the pelican represents Christ saving sinners with his blood and though it just seems wierd now, the parallel between Christ and the mother’s sacrifice would have been easily interpreted by those in Francesco de Mura’s time.

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What marveled Elizabeth was the “conviction” of the painting. By “conviction” she meant that the painting wasn’t contrived, that it had a real stamp of authenticity. She also said that she had been moved, but couldn’t explain why; she felt as if the mother was “elevated beyond”. “Beyond what?”, I asked. Elizabeth couldn’t say.

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After the interview I went back to the painting to try and figure out what Elizabeth was unable to explain. I realized that because she had been so transfixed by the central figure in the painting, she hadn’t even noticed the pelican pecking itself in the chest. This led me to see something I hadn’t seen before: the mother in the picture doesn’t notice the pelican either. The only one who does is the boy rushing up to her; his own startled recognition of the bird ricochets out to us and consequently draws our attention to the bird. I think  what moved Elizabeth, what made her feel that the mother was “elevated beyond” was the level of absorption the mother has in the painting: she is focused on her children at the exclusion of everything else. Elizabeth’s total focus on the mother may have caused her to miss a striking feature of the painting and yet, it is precisely due to this that she had a powerful experience with the painting: Elizabeth identified so closely with the mother that she saw the scene not through the eyes of someone outside the painting, but through the eyes of someone within it. Perhaps it was Elizabeth herself who felt, if only for a few seconds, “elevated beyond”?

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