Listen to the song of the lark

It is not the portrait of a bird. It is the portrait of a song presented in immobility, color and silence.


Jules Adolphe Breton

Presented for the first time in Paris at the Salon of 1885, the painting was immediately taken over by a New York art dealer who resold it to the Chicagoan Henry Field, from whose collection it arrived at the Art Institute in 1894. years, song of the lark had a powerful impact on many viewers.

Cover of Willa Cather’s novel, 1915

In 1915, author Willa Cather titled her famous novel after the painting, using it in a key scene where its protagonist, an aspiring singer, sees the painting at the Art Institute and has an artistic awakening. . In 1934, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt unveiled the artwork in a ceremony at the museum as “America’s Best Loved Picture,” according to a competition sponsored by the Chicago Daily News, and called it his favorite painting. And decades ago, when Bill Murray was a young actor struggling with a low point in his life, the sight of peasant women in the fields at sunrise inspired him to keep moving forward.

The artist

Although he loved the French countryside and had made a name for himself by painting scenes of rustic life, Jules Breton did not grow up as a peasant. He was born in 1827 in Courrières, a small town – comparable to a canton or an incorporated municipality – in Normandy. His father owned land, worked as a deputy judge and mayor, and managed the estate of a wealthy landowner.

Jules Adolphe Aimé Louis Breton, circa 1890

After the emergence of the talent of the young Breton, he studied art in Belgium and France, copied the Old Masters and befriended realist painters. He tried his hand at history painting but, after having found his true subject in scenes of rural life, he returned to Courrières. His paintings of working peasants brought him great fame during his lifetime and were particularly popular in the United States.

In a letter to his brother Theo, Vincent van Gogh mentioned seeing a print of Slark ngo and called it a beautiful painting. At one point, he went to Courrières, looking for a job. He hoped to meet Breton and ended up walking miles and miles home. At the sight of “the artist’s brand new studio, recently built of brick, of Methodist regularity, with an inhospitable aspect, stone cold and forbidding”, Van Gogh turned and left. But this is another story.

The singers

Larks are found all over the world. They are known as passerines, which means they belong to the order Passeriformes, the largest order of birds in the world. Passerines are songbirds that like to perch, which is facilitated by the configuration of their legs: they have three toes pointing forward and one pointing back.

Eurasian lark (Alauda arvensis)

Probably the species that inspired the young woman’s look of transfiguration

Skylarks build their nests on the ground, which may explain why they sing the most in flight. Even if you are unfamiliar with their song, as I imagine most people are not, the title and subject of the painting allude to their beauty.

My grandmother loved to listen to the larks, especially when they sang while hovering. During mating, the songs could last for minutes. She often pointed out the different types of songs to me. As a kid, I wasn’t impressed.

Dear to the author’s grandmother, the Horned Lark is the only lark native to North America.

Years later, as an adult, I happened to sleep in a tent right on the edge of a meadow. The silence was perhaps the most complete I have ever heard. Just before sunrise, when the light looked more like an idea than a reality, there was a deafening commotion that jolted me awake. It was mating season, and before I knew it, the sky was full of larks fighting over mates or territory or maybe just needing to sing. Maybe it was the effect of the silence and the way my mind still rose from sleep, but the sound went through me, pierced me as poets often describe it. It was liquid, melodic and urgent.


My grandmother taught me how to use a sickle to cut the tall grass and weeds growing along the drainage ditch near her garden. It was hard work and required calluses. Like the sickle the woman holds, my grandmother’s was handmade and had been sharpened so many times that it no longer appeared circular. Back then song of the lark was painted, the industrial revolution was catching up with Europe, including in agriculture. Some believe the painting is a nostalgic look at a kind of rural life that may soon disappear with the advent of machinery. Maybe so, which could also explain its popularity among city dwellers, many of whom had grown up in small, rural towns. Of course, Breton had no idea how the silence needed to fully appreciate the song would also disappear with the advent of the gasoline engine.

The last time I saw my grandmother’s sickle was a hanging hanging on the wall of her decaying barn, a rusty comma waiting to create a slight pause between two words. And I haven’t heard a skylark in a while, especially since I live in town. Looking at this painting, however, I find myself blending several memories into one, trying to create the perfect moment: I am a child working with a sickle who stops to listen to a passing lark sing, while my grandmother mother smiles from somewhere outside the frame.

This is the trick played by memory. Or maybe it’s a paint just doing its job.

—Paul Jones, Associate Director, Communications


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