She’s not pretty; she’s a little bit mannish, actually— her feet are a little too large, her hands too strong on the handle of the scythe, her eyes too dark behind heavy brows. The empty field where she stands is harsh, with flat dirt extending for a long way before touching a green border far in the background. A mottled red sun rises behind her, heralding the dawn, but even that has little inherent beauty.
Yet the the look of searching wonder in her face is touching, even breathtaking. All the emotion of “The Song of the Lark” by Jules Breton is imbued with the implied things outside the canvas, lending the dull, mundane scene a romantic tinge.
This 1884 painting is an example of the Realist movement, the quiet browns, dim greens and lazy reds somehow given life by the thin white of the girl’s shirt. Rough textures that resemble Courbet’s “The Stonecutters” surround her, but the smoothness of her dirt-smudged skin clearly marks her as more important than the background.
Many paintings from the 19th century address the topic of ordinary peasant life, but the specific focus makes this one special. Whereas other artists chose to portray ordinary tasks, full of people going about their daily work in a brightly colored country scene, “The Song of the Lark” depicts a rare quiet moment at the very beginning of the day. The lull between night and dawn is the most peaceful time; looking at the solitary girl in the half-light gives off a sense of relaxation, not unlike lying in bed just after waking, watching the light slowly edge up the wall.
We rarely see this kind of intimate scene in traditional art, and it offers a special kind of introspection. What does the song sound like? If a glimpse of simple pleasure like a birdsong can capture her attention so much, what is her life like? Without a word, the picture offers a look into one peasant girl’s life, immortalizing what would otherwise have been so easily lost.
Unfortunately, the Art Institute of Chicago has lit the painting in such a way that you have to step back a few feet to avoid the glare on the dark areas. It’s pretty annoying when you walk into the hall and spot the painting from across the room, but just as you’re coming toward it with wide-eyed fascination, that white glare obliterates a huge circle of the canvas, so you have to back up again until the angle is right. This keeps art nitpickers from going nose-to-nose with the brush strokes, but it also makes that comfortable space of about three feet from the painting a no-man’s-land if you really want to see the work.
Everyone sees something different in artwork, but in this case, it’s more than what you see— it’s everything that you don’t see. The beauty is in the hope in the girl’s expression, straining toward what’s just out of reach.