There are some things in life that pause the entire momentum of our schedules and force the swirling inertia of our multi-tasked lives to stop — and behold. They can even take our breath away. In my adult life, I have found such experiences to be more prevalent within the chambers of a good museum. In the words of Christopher Cross whose iconic 80’s music can’t help but stick in your head, “The canvas can do miracles, just you wait and see.”
The merit of a good museum escaped me for many years, most likely because I, myself, am not an artist. I have always been apt with words, but never too impressive with numbers or pictures. Perhaps this explains why art is so meaningful to me; it opens up parts of my mind that I don’t use as often. Perhaps it is the pathos of art, which can make a linear-thinker like me quite uncomfortable.
I could name dozens of pieces of art that have broadened my intellectual and emotional horizons, but one in particular which did so recently carries with it a special kind of sentimentality – it’s in a museum in my hometown.
I was at the Philbrook Museum of Art, in Tulsa, OK, with my family on a Sunday afternoon when we stopped to admire a painting I had seen before but never taken in completely. First, allow me to present this beautiful work of art and talk about the incredible insights contained within. Then, I’ll tell you more about the painting and its extraordinary artist.
There are several things that jumped right off the canvas at us as we studied and discussed this great piece:
- We noticed immediately that the family appears to be of a “peasant” class. They are a poor family. Do you notice? Each person in the scene is looking towards the window sill where two birds are feeding on crumbs and perhaps some spilled milk.The birds appear to be sparrows, which I will return to below.
- Their clothes are the first clue.
- Second, none of the three are wearing shoes.
- Third, there is a basket made for bread hanging above them which is currently empty.
- Fourth, the fabric in the basket on the floor appears to have the same materials used to make the clothing they are wearing.
- Finally, the room in which they are situated is meek in and of itself; perhaps even austere.
- The mother is an heroic figure in the scene. She is clearly a provider and caregiver for the children and she exhudes a confident, yet humble, dignity.
- The little boy has his head rested on the woman’s shoulder with a look of serenity and peace on his face.
- The little girl has her hands clasped, almost as if in prayer, as she looks adoringly at the birds.
- The color red definitely stands out as it appears on the mother’s head and in the fabric basket below.
As we beheld this beautiful painting for the first time, a timeless passage from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount immediately came to mind. I could see it in the painting as clearly as if it had been written in bright, bold lettering. In fact, the more I absorb this great work of art, the more I see several Scriptures at work. Yet none of the texts I read about the painting, including those in the museum’s library, mentioned the text from the Sermon on the Mount. As I consider the aforementioned details of the painting, I am convinced the artist wanted her audience to see a poor family who is struggling to make ends meet that is at peace while watching God provide for the birds. To me, this painting tells a story using Jesus’ words without having to use any words of its own.
From the Sermon on the Mount:
“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? (Matthew 6:25-26)
And because the birds appear to be two sparrows, another passage containing Jesus’ words also fits the painting:
“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” (Matthew 10:29-31)
And since I mentioned that verse, it is worth noticing its parallel passage in Luke:
“Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” (Luke 12:6-7)
It never ceases to amaze me how an artist can say so much without having to use any words. It is a gift I certainly do not have, but am learning to appreciate more each day.
THIS AMAZING WORK OF ART
The work is called He Careth, by the brilliant American artist Elizabeth Jane Gardner (Bouguereau). The painting, to which Gardner ascribed the French title Ne Bougez Pas (meaning “Keep Still,” or “Do Not Stir”), was released in Paris in 1888. Sometime after its reception in America, however, the title was changed to He Careth. The painting was quickly beloved in the American art academies and won the gold medal for best figure painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia in 1889.
Here is what others have said about He Careth:
“The religious overtone of the title [He Careth] refers to God the Father who watches over and cares for all, even the smallest creatures.”
“In He Careth, a typically sentimental allegory, there is a certain nobility in the figures of mother and child. The small bird eating crumbs on the window sill hints that God watches over His smallest creatures, child and bird alike.”
“In He Careth, Gardner created an intimate setting, harmoniously connecting the figures with their humble environment yet distinguishing a seemingly everyday and mundane occurrence by imbuing it with sacred meaning. Focusing on personal piety, she communicated a simple Christian message.”
The more I learned about Gardner, herself, the more I appreciated her work. Gardner moved to Paris to study under some of the most renowned teachers and artists in the world. Unlike most American painters in Paris, Gardner was not supported by a wealthy family. It was her talent, instead, which propelled her into some of the most elite artistic circles in Paris. She became one of the first and most prominent American female artists to contribute to the French art academies. More impressively, Gardner was the first American woman to exhibit her art at the prestigious Paris Salon (the most renowned art display at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris, France, 1725–1890) and would eventually win the Salon’s gold medal for her work.
Gardner mastered the theme of the “idealized peasant,” often portraying female peasants as heroines with purity and a subtle dignity. The heroic peasant mother often symbolized “basic values such as family, work, and religion.” One can only assume that she was motivated at least in part to paint females as heroines because it was so difficult for her to gain acceptance in the male-dominated world of the late nineteenth-century European art scene. At one point in her early days in Paris, Gardner even attempted to dress like a man in an attempt to enter a particular art school.
Gardner’s work is often overlooked by current art enthusiasts because it has been overshadowed by the work of her husband, William Bouguereau. (Incidentally, some of Bougeureau’s most important work can also be seen at the Philbrook museum.) Gardner was a student of Bouguereau and their romance lasted several years before they were married in their later years of life. While there are many similarities between the two artists, Gardner’s portrayals of the everyday, yet heroic woman contain a feminine touch that escaped her husband William for obvious reasons.
Garnder also loved to make use of children and other small living creatures in her artwork. He Careth is not the only painting of Gardner’s to use birds as a focal point. Gardner loved birds and used them often in her artwork. She owned several cages and at one time had around twenty birds in her apartment in Paris. She also loved to feed birds at her windows.
 Thomas, 2 (caption).
 Lawson, 49.
 Rubinstein, 111-112
 Lawson, 53.
 Lawson, 47.
 Rubinstein, 110.
Lawson, Jeanette C. “Elizabeth Gardner Bouguereau (1837 –1922): An American in Paris.” M.Th. Florida State University, 1993.
Rubinstein, Charlotte Streifer. American Women Artists. Avon, 1982.
Thomas, Mary. “A Vision of Beauty and Light.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (July 3, 2007).