Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother [photograph] (1936)
Lange worked as a photographer for the federal Farm Security Administration, documenting the hardscrabble lives of Americans and their families in the West during the Great Depression. The images she captured brought this tremendous national drama to life, allowing us to see and experience the struggles that too many families faced. This fight for survival and dignity is captured powerfully in Lange’s most famous photograph, Migrant Mother. It depicts 32-year-old Florence Owen Thompson, a migrant worker at a camp in Nipomo, California in 1936, as she considers how she will feed her children that day. Ms. Thompson is not what one would typically describe as a “beauty,” but there is an undeniable exquisiteness in this mother’s piercing eyes, weathered face, and troubled expression. Her humanity is plain to see.
Michael Sweerts (Flemish, 1618 – 1664) Head of a Woman, about 1654, Oil on panel Unframed: 50.6 x 37.5 cm (19 15/16 x 14 3/4 in.) Framed: 67.9 x 56.4 x 4.8 cm (26 3/4 x 22 3/16 x 1 7/8 in.) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
The woman depicted in this painting has no name that is known to us. We do not know why such an accomplished artist as Michael Sweerts—a Seventeenth Century Flemish painter—would be drawn to her. Her visage is not “touched up” or idealized in any way by the artist. Rather, her years, flaws and decrepitude are accentuated. Even so, there is a unique and ironic beauty about her, brought out by Sweerts even as he illustrates her visual “shortcomings.” We are drawn to her for this very reason.
Théodore Géricault (French, 1791 – 1824) Study of a Model, about 1818 – 1819, Oil on canvas Unframed: 47 x 38.7 cm (18 1/2 x 15 1/4 in.) Framed: 67.6 x 59.1 x 7.6 cm (26 5/8 x 23 1/4 x 3 in.) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Distinct from, but also similar to Sweert’s Head of a Woman, this image presents to us a very weathered man who has undoubtedly faced many trials. It is there, plain to see. This is a study the 26-year-old Gericault created for a larger painting, The Raft of Medusa, which hangs in the Louvre. The study itself is housed at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The subject of this painting was a sailor who survived a shipwreck off the coast of Africa. Most of his companions perished. We can see his pain in his watering and bloodshot eyes. While he may not possess a hidden beauty of his own like Sweert’s Head of a Woman or Lange’s Migrant Mother, there is indeed something moving about the portrait. Gericault has given us a compelling picture of beauty in imperfection.
Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Banjo Lesson
We have previously studied two of Tanner’s religious paintings: Annunciation and Visitation. This is one of the artist’s few works depicting the everyday domestic life of poor black families, very similar to The Thankful Poor. Perhaps both paintings depict the same grandfather and grandson. As with the works by Lange, Sweerts and Gericault, there is a genuine beauty found in the roughness of these individuals, their modest surroundings and tattered clothes. There is also something special about their communion together. Who wouldn’t want to be that child, with his father or grandfather lovingly and patiently giving him a banjo lesson? The touching nature of this scene likely explains why it is one of Tanner’s most noted works.
Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of the Artist’s Mother (1888)
If it weren’t for Anna van Gogh, the world would have been deprived of the rich and vibrant works of her son. Vincent received his love of art from her. This is a rare work, as there are precious few pieces showing us any of van Gogh’s family members. In a letter to his brother, he explained that he created this piece from memory. Van Gogh was never a precise, careful painter. His appeal is found in his bold use of color and in dramatic, broad brush strokes. We do not know if his mother’s appearance suffers because of his style. Her true complexion and color are indiscernible here. We can tell nothing of the style or color of her hair. However, her eyes are perfectly piercing and her smile is subtle and warm. While not a typically “beautiful” work, it is unmistakably a presentation of great respect and love from a son to his mother. She is not the Mona Lisa or the Girl with a Pearl Earring. But she is indeed lovely.
Matthias Stom, Leading Hagar to Abraham (1637) Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, Germany.
Born in the Netherlands, Stom was most active in Italy, and particularly Rome. He was strongly associated with the ‘Caravaggisti,’ the school of painters who studied and imitated the style and technique of the great Caravaggio. It’s hard not to find humor in this depiction of one of the Bible’s most famous stories of family dysfunction. You’ve got to love the look on both Sarai’s and Abram’s faces. She is very matter-of-fact, even blank perhaps—but clearly resolved as she gently takes Hagar’s wrist and points her toward her elderly husband. Hagar has a slightly reticent but obedient gaze. Abram, who looks as if he has just awoken from a deep sleep, seems to be thinking, “What… seriously?” This is communicated not only in his facial expression but in his upturned and questioning left hand. He stares straight into the eyes of his wife, perhaps wondering whether she is serious, kidding or just plain crazy.