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.

Totally digging this Tsavorite and Diamond ring by Ivy New York! Complete symmetry is totally unnecessary in jewellery as long as the piece is incredibly well designed and beautifully crafted. (Photo: @vlad_yavorskyy ) #thejewelcollective @thejewelcollective #ivynewyork #tsavorite #diamond #diamonds #diamondring #feminine #finejewelry #finejewellery #marquise #marquisecut #unique #bespoke #gem #gemmology #gemmologist #stonecutter #lapidary

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“‘There was this time when I was a boy. A helicopter crashed on the old farm. Squashed down onto the ground and burst into flames.’ The truck driver presses his hands into the yielding flesh of his stomach and then lifts them. Spreads his fingers in the air. Returns his hands to his belly. Looks at them there. ‘Afterwards there were these black bodies, out in the paddock, in the long grass. Not that the cows cared.’”

From “Three Sisters” by Maria Takolander, recommended by Stonecutter.

Read it for free tomorrow in Electric Literature’s weekly fiction magazine, Recommended Reading.

Daguerreotype portrait of a stonecutter posing with a hammer and chisel, c. 1850.


"Three Sisters" by Maria Takolander

Recommended by Stonecutter

Issue No. 111

Let us take a look at this place. Marshlands. All the way to the horizon. The land drained, but nevertheless sinking. Sinking into nothing, nothing but itself. Frogs volleying noise in the grass, unseen. The hazy movement of mosquitoes low to the ground. On a lush blade of green a sleek cricket, blacker than night and—look closely—its antennae twitching. Just think: there must be more of those creatures, thousands, perhaps millions, clinging to the swamp grass as far as your eye can see.

Read the full story here!

About the Author

Maria Takolander is a prize-winning Australian short-story writer and the author of The Double (and Other Stories). She is also the author of three books of poetry, The End of the World, Ghostly Subjects, and Narcissism. Her poems have appeared annually in The Best Australian Poems or The Best Australian Poetry since 2005. She teaches at Deakin University in Victoria, Australia.

About the Guest Editor

Stonecutter is an annual print journal of art and literature with a focus on translation, international work in English, and contemporary American work. Founded in 2010 by Katie Raissian, along with editors Ava Lehrer, Zara Katz, Anna Della Subin, and Kayley Hoffman, Stonecutter provides a space for words, ideas, and images to circulate between US-based and international writers and artists, in the hopes that surprising connections between imaginations and geographies will form. Read more about each issue and press for Stonecutter here

“Three Sisters” appears in Stonecutter Issue Four, and The Double (and Other Stories) by Maria Takolander, Text Publishing, US $15.95/CND $17.50, released December 22, 2014. “Three Sisters” © Copyright Maria Takolander 2014.

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Hear This: “We Do (The Stonecutters Song)“ (1995) 

John Swartzwelder was responsible for many of The Simpsons’ best, yet most outlandish concepts, ranging from Bart suddenly getting a pet elephant, to the whole town being caught up in a snake-whacking contest, to Homer being recruited by a living James Bond villain. Looking at them on paper, it’s hard to imagine how any of those concepts would fare in the hands of contemporary Simpsons writers. But somehow, Swartzwelder was always able to explode the world of The Simpsons without totally demolishing its center.

But the song reflects his way with balancing the outsized with the small and silly, as Patrick Stewart’s Number One leads the Stonecutters in a beery chantey about how they’re responsible for everything from rigging the Oscars to hiding the existence of Martians to giving Steve Guttenberg his acting career. Somehow “We Do” lost at the 1995 Emmys to some Barbra Streisand number—evidence of another secret society at work, no doubt—but it endures as a prime example of The Simpsons at its most preposterous without being totally stupid, a sweet spot that is not always so easy to find.

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