My Musings

Painting the Plight of the Poor

Painting the Plight of the Poor

For the first time since the ‘60s, one in seven working-age Americans live in poverty (46.5 million Americans in 2012 or 15.9 percent). In 2000, it was 11.3 percent. For children, our 2012 poverty rate was 21.8 per¬cent. Ouch!

Of course, statistics can point our concerns in different directions. For example, 97 percent of poor households (by today’s standard) have a color TV; 78 percent have a VCR or DVD player; 76 percent have air conditioning; 73 percent own a microwave oven; and nearly three-quarters own a car.

While poverty can often be a matter of perspective, it remains a matter of serious concern. Pain and deprivation come to human beings in many different ways that defy measurement with statistics. It is helpful to also turn to the arts for a richer perspective (pun intended). Art pulls the heart into the “composition.”

To picture poverty, let’s go first to 19th century Russia. Ilya Repin (1844 –1930), a Russian/Ukrainian realist, was the son of a soldier (a private) who grew up in poverty and hardship. His Barge Haulers of the Volga (see above) was finished in 1873 and it led the way for other painters to portray the harsh realities of peasant poverty in Russia. This powerful work made Repin a leader of a new movement of critical realism in painting. Each character in the composition is a metaphor for Russia. For the leader, Repin painted the portrait of an unfrocked priest he knew to represent the wisdom of the people. He also includes an ex-soldier, a Siberian, a Greek, an old prizefighter and more. These characters are diverse in age, origin and nationality but they are united in a common role as human beasts of burden.

On the Road, the Death of a Resettler; (1889, Tretjkow Gallery, Moscow), by Sergey Vasilyevich Ivanov (1864 –1910).

Sixteen years later, Sergey Ivanov, another Russian realist, painted On the Road, the Death of a Resettler. It portrayed an expired day-laborer with his family in despair on a lonely road to who knows where. It was conceived at a time when many Russians were refugees seeking to escape the ravages of a famine.

Across the English Channel in the land of Dickens, many Victorian painters rose to portray the poor in a sympathetic light. Sir Hubert von Herkomer (1849 –1914) was a British painter of German descent who knew poverty as a child. He recalls the time his mother gave him the family’s last half sovereign to go shopping but he lost it, adding to the misery of his family. He recalled, “We were constantly in want of money.”

Hard Times (1885), by Sir Hubert von Herkomer (33.5 × 43.5 in).

Herkomer’s classic, Hard Times, depicts a homeless family of four near his home town of Bushey (England) where migrant farmers often sought work. The wife copes with present uncertainty while the husband looks down the road with equal concern for a sign of future hope.

Bird Scaring (1896), by Sir George Clausen (1852 –1944), Harris Museum.

Children bear a heavy share of the burden of poverty. Sir George Clausen (1852 –1944) devoted himself to portraying English farm life. His work, Bird Scaring (below), reveals the rustic character of a boy charged with protecting seeds and crops the old fashioned way—by scaring off birds. His job required long and lonely hours in the fields, shouting, shaking a “clapper,” and stoking up smoke to scare off crows. His forlorn face tells a compelling story of determination amid fatigue. Many British writers recorded the miseries of bird-scaring.

Pauvre Fauvette (1881), by Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848-1884).

Finally, we come to Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848 – 1884), a French naturalist painter highly revered by fellow artists. After some schooling in Paris and serving in the Franco-Prussian War, he turned his highly refined academic skills to painting simple peasants and common folk with profound sensitivity and respect. Sadly, he died too young at age 36. In Pauvre Fauvette (1881, Poor Warbler?), Bastien-Lepage depicts the loneliness of a boy wrapped in rags and sentenced to long hours in the field with livestock. He stares out into the horizon in a way that direct our stare into his countenance, wondering what he thinks of his lot in life.

Great art can portray the plight of others in a way that broadens our perspective, inspires compassion and deepens our gratitude. I hope the great art above does all this for you.


About the Author:

Joel graduated from Pepperdine University with a B.A., completing two majors: Art and Religion. He went on to earn the Master of Divinity degree from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. The views expressed on this blog are personal and belong to Joel Solliday unless otherwise stated. They are not, intended to characterize the views of the Lewiston Church of Christ or other organizations to which I may refer.

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