The Thinking 

A Picture Paints a Thousand Words

November 27, 2017

IT’S A CLICHÉ but it is true. A picture — especially a good painting — says as much as a thousand words and even more, it may say things that words cannot.

I was thinking about this the other day when looking at this touching painting, Breaking Home Ties, by the American artist Thomas Hovenden (1840-1895). From the description by the Philadelphia Museum of Art:

Voted the most popular painting at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, Breaking Home Ties captured the American imagination as few other pictures have. The 1890s saw the decline of small family farms and the necessity of young sons leaving the land to make a living in the city or on what little was left of the frontier. The scene Thomas Hovenden depicts here had been enacted in many homes, and the composition gave American families a visual record of their own turmoil. The artist used models he knew well: each figure can be identified as a relative or friend of the Hovendens, including the family dog.

The sadness of the boy’s departure is movingly conveyed with the gloomy background and the mother’s affection and the dog whose eyes are fixed on what is probably one of his best companions. The men move around in the background as if it is too much to watch and the grandmother is stony. The boy looks off in the distance with apprehension and determination. In such a tiny space, the painter captures the drama of his thoughts so that we may feel as if we are experiencing them too. We are taken out of ourselves and into the world of others far away at a distant time.

Photographs, except those by accomplished artists, cannot convey what a painter can. A painter does not deal in physical reality alone, but in inner realities. The best painters communicate ideals — the only things worth living for. Here the ideal is family intimacy. The fact that it is being broken is cause for great somberness.

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