Tag archives: art

Beauty Will Save the World (Part 2): How Rembrandt’s The Jewish Bride Reveals the Divine Potential of Marital Love

by John Sumereau

March 3, 2022

Fyodor Dostoevsky, the great Russian writer, famously observed that “Beauty will save the world.” In this spirit, this blog series focuses on great works of art and how they reveal new layers of meaning to the inexhaustibly rich themes of life and human dignity, marriage and family, and religious freedom. Read part one on Mary Cassatt’s The Boating Party.

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Vincent van Gogh once wrote that he would gladly give up 10 years of his life for the chance to sit in front of Rembrandt’s masterpiece, The Jewish Bride (1665-1669), for two weeks, eating only stale crusts of bread. 

Often described as “a painter’s painting,” the technical brilliance and subtlety of the artist’s handling are best appreciated by those who know the medium firsthand and are familiar with the limitations which Rembrandt’s genius transcends.

The painting’s title was erroneously assigned by an undiscerning art collector in the 19th century who supposed that the subject was a father bestowing a necklace on his betrothed daughter. While controversy about the actual subject persists, most scholars identify the sitters as husband and wife, and there is strong evidence that they are intended to represent the biblical figures of Isaac and Rebekah. 

Beyond the technical brilliance of this painting, what did van Gogh, a spiritually sensitive man and at one point a Protestant missionary, see in this work that so captivated him? His avowal carries a religious fervor out of proportion to even the most ardent connoisseur’s admiration of the master’s technical skill. 

The answer lies, no doubt, in the spiritual element that radiates from the encounter of its two subjects. Without any extravagant display of affection, Rembrandt communicates a mutual devotion of unfathomable depth. Art historian Sister Wendy Beckett calls their expressions “infinitely moving.” 

In his depiction of this loving couple, Rembrandt points to a reality that perhaps only those who have been blessed to personally experience it will recognize. This husband and wife, we feel, have each made of themselves a total gift. Their mutual exchange is complete. We immediately notice that the figures are not idealized. If anything, they are slightly unattractive, but this only serves to authenticate the depth of their love. We may be surprised to see that their gazes are not fixed on each other; instead, they look into the distance, as if reflecting on something past. And yet they are fully present to each other. In an extraordinary echo of the Holy Trinity, we see emerge from the profundity of their devotion what could almost be called the third character of the painting. The man and woman look not at each other but, it seems, at the very love that mysteriously springs from their union. 

God the Father eternally beholds His divine Son, and the Holy Spirit is the personification of Their Love; a third Person. God, Himself, is love, and the nearer our love comes to true holiness, the more fully is the Person of God, the Holy Spirit, present in our love. The expressions of the husband and wife are “infinitely moving” because they behold the infinite God to Whom their love points and in Whom it participates. 

In The Jewish Bride, we see a tender embrace without clinginess. We see an attraction that has little to do with attention to physical appearance. We see a love that rejoices in self-gift and a cherishing of the deepest identity of the other.

An earlier sketch by the artist depicts Isaac and Rebekah in similar postures with the figure of King Abimelech in the background accidentally witnessing their moment of intimacy. 

In the Genesis narrative, Isaac and Rebekah came to settle in the land of Gerar. Like his father Abraham had done years before, Isaac tells the inhabitants of this foreign land that his wife was his sister, for fear they would kill him and steal Rebekah if they knew she was his wife. When Abimelech happened to see them embracing, he sent for Isaac and rebuked him for putting his people in danger of unknowingly committing the serious sin of sleeping with another man’s wife. However one interprets this story, it is clear that Isaac is a flawed character. He is apparently unwilling to defend his wife, preferring to watch her be stolen than to put his own life at risk. This context adds even greater significance to the loving encounter Rembrandt presents, as a truly blessed and holy marital love transcends even serious faults. It is a love that participates in God’s love for us, aware of our sinfulness and misery, yet seeking the most intimate union. In this painting, Abimelech is absent, and we, the viewers, take his place. We are the discoverers of the couple’s secret and holy love.

The Jewish Bride exhibits the most extraordinary facet of Rembrandt’s genius: his ability to capture fleeting and elusive expressions along with the full weight of the psychological realities that underlie them. As he builds up layers of richly textured, opaque paint, he makes transparent the window to his subject’s soul.

There is little doubt that this is the beauty van Gogh identified and revered.

John Sumereau graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Art from the Penn State School of Arts and Architecture in 2013. John lives in Winchester, Virginia with his wife and three children, whom he currently supports by working as an ultrasound tech at a local hospital. His artwork can be seen on the John Sumereau Art Facebook page.

Beauty Will Save the World (Part 1): How Mary Cassatt’s The Boating Party Illustrates the Interdependence of the Family

by John Sumereau

January 27, 2022

Fyodor Dostoevsky, the great Russian writer, famously observed that “Beauty will save the world.” In this spirit, this blog series will focus on great works of art and how they reveal new layers of meaning to the inexhaustibly rich themes of life and human dignity, marriage and family, and religious freedom.

***

Mary Cassatt, born in Philadelphia in 1844, lived nearly all her adult life studying, collecting, and creating avant-garde artwork in France. She never married. She never bore children. But the decades-long gaze she fixed, through the sensitive and thoughtful eyes of a truly great artist, bore lasting fruit as a towering tribute to the beauty of motherhood. 

Few are unfamiliar with Cassatt’s touching portrayals of mothers and their babies absorbed in the routine exercises of homelife. Bathing, feeding, sewing, reading, often doing nothing more than exchanging a look or a touch with the children in their laps, Cassatt’s mothers are immersed in a shared existence. This is the very opposite of the individualism the artist’s own commitment to art required her to adopt. But an authentic search for beauty, the most essential virtue of an artist, demands an unflagging fidelity to truth. And Mary Cassatt was too great an artist to ignore the exceeding goodness of the road she left untaken.

Unique among Cassatt’s finished works is the large-scale painting she titled The Boating Party (1893). The painting’s central figures, a mother and her softly squirming baby, resemble any of a hundred other pieces by the artist. But now the frame has been widened. We are permitted to see the rare figure of a father, and it is not unreasonable to assume that there is significance in this uncommon element. What clues does it give us to Cassatt’s attitudes and beliefs about the other half of parenthood to which she has devoted so much attention? The figure himself is unsurprisingly obscure. We see him from behind, his dark clothes strongly contrasting with the sun-drenched scene that we join him in beholding. The father is a lonely figure. He propels the boat forward only by physically pulling away from his family. His dependents face their helmsman.

All at once we glimpse the fragility of the mother’s and child’s shared world. Their relationship, as saturated with love as the figures are with sunlight, is seen perched on a small boat blown by the wind and floating on deep waters. The mother looks expectantly at her captain, visibly aware of her reliance on him, but warmly expressing, if not love, at least a willingness to love; a hope that her vulnerability will find shelter under his headship, permitting a true love to grow. There is something ominous about the man, and the dynamic composition hinges on the tension of vulnerability. Yet Cassatt refuses to give us any explicit indication of treachery on the part of the father, and, indeed, there is no reason to suspect that any exists. We are merely aware of his absolute importance to their continued flourishing. 

Is this painting a confession of the necessity of co-dependency? Or is it a protest against it? Perhaps it’s both, but much more importantly, it is a call to parents. The Boating Party lays bare the delicate architecture of interdependence that makes up a family. Our modern society has become allergic to dependence. We’re encouraged to pursue self-sufficiency and self-reliance. There is little doubt that this widespread fear of interdependence is a natural reaction to the many instances of abuse, neglect, and abandonment we learn about so often. But Mary Cassatt saw plainly that true fruitfulness and fulfillment can only be found in vulnerability. 

And the one figure who looks in the direction the boat is traveling, the child, asserts the impact of her parents’ fidelity to their calling both on her own future and the future of humanity.

John Sumereau graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Art from the Penn State School of Arts and Architecture in 2013. John lives in Winchester, Virginia with his wife and three children, whom he currently supports by working as an ultrasound tech at a local hospital. His artwork can be seen on the John Sumereau Art Facebook page.

An Era Ends: Sheet Music Magazine Publishes Its Last Edition

by Chris Gacek

March 23, 2013

David R. Sands of the Washington Times recently published this article about our changing cultural landscape entitled “Sheet Music’s Last Note.” In it, he informs us that the last issue of America’s only magazine providing its readers with piano sheet music expired last autumn.  In thirty-six years years, Sheet Music Magazine had printed nearly 3,000 songs.  At its height, the magazine had 150,000 subscribers who received a copy every two months. 

What killed the Sheet Music?  Accordingly to the publisher, Ed Shanaphy, his magazine…

…couldn’t survive a perfect storm of factors gathering in recent years, from a bad economy, falling piano sales and the rise of online downloading services for sheet music to the decline of a generation that played piano for fun and the rise of a generation that gets into music through earbuds and prefers its musical scores auto-translated into audio online.

That is quite a combination of technological and social change. 

The article has some fascinating figures on piano sales in the United States.  In 1909, 360,000 pianos were sold in America with a population of 90.5 million.  In 1969 (see diagram), there were 220,000 sold (pop. 220 million).  Finally, in 2007, there 315 million people in the country, but sales totaled only 62,500. 

The 1909 figure is useful because it represents a time when there were no/few recorded music players, no radios, etc.  If you wanted to have musical entertainment, you had to do it yourself or pay someone to play it live.  More instructive is 1969 when we had high quality FM radio and very good stereo recordings for sale.  Since then, piano sales have really plunged.

What does it mean?  Are we watching a decline of cultural literacy.  Perhaps, it just represents a decline of the piano relative to other instruments, but I doubt it.

As a consumer of music, I know that what I listen to – just in terms of the sound quality – seems greatly inferior to my parents’ high fidelity stereo.  People used to spend a fortune on sound equipment.  That doesn’t seem to happen now.  There has been a huge shift to video technology with ever-better formats like blu-ray.  Does an audio analog (ha-ha, no irony intended) of blu-ray exist?  The world seems to be moving in the opposite direction.  MP3 files aren’t even as good as the much-criticized recordings on CDs.  Now I listen to classical music using the speakers on my Kindle.  Sound quality may not matter with rap, but it matters if you want to hear the percussion instruments in Carmen.  True that, but I just paid $1.99 for 13 hours of some composer whose music is play by the Latvian Symphony Orchestra and sits on my cloud.  I can listen any place that has wi-fi.  That enhances my cultural literacy.

I have no great theory, but David Sands’ article will make you think a bit.  How has your appreciation and interaction with quality music changed?  For better, worse?  Do you care?

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