Susanna Avery‐Quash (ed.), Ayla Lepine (ed.), Isobel Muir (co‐editor), Fruits of the Spirit: Art from the Heart, digital edition (London: The National Gallery, 2022).
Rembrandt was fascinated by the Book of Tobit, whose central characters include a stoical elderly couple.1 He painted episodes from it on several occasions. Here, the blind and pious Tobit and his wife Anna await the return of their son Tobias, who has gone on a long journey to find money owed to Tobit, to ease their poverty.2 Tobias will have many adventures before finally returning with the money and a fish whose entrails, as promised by the Archangel Raphael (who accompanied Tobias on his travels), will provide a cure for Tobit’s blindness. The happy ending is in the future; the moment captured in Rembrandt’s painting is a more uncertain present, when the couple can but wait patiently in the hope of a good outcome. With their chairs drawn close together, they abide in companionable silence. Light falls on their hands and illuminates their activities – as Anna spins to earn them an income, Tobit, with lowered head, clasps his hands in meditation or prayer. Despite their unresolved situation and decrepit surroundings – there is no glass in the window, the wooden shutter is broken and plaster peels from the walls – their living space is illuminated by a window on one side and warmth from a fire on the other, and tranquillity and serenity reign. The ivy clinging to the window evokes their faithful abiding with each other and with God, and taken as a whole, the scene may be read as a visual commentary on patience and its rewards, from both secular and religious points of view.
Rembrandt’s inclusion of so many details and so much shadow as well as his textured impasto technique encourage slow looking, inviting us to be attentive to the story. Look again at Tobit: Rembrandt has depicted with patient attention each wrinkle on his cheek, each hair of his greying beard, each brown mark on his aged hands: all signs of Tobit’s long life and, by implication, his experience and wisdom. Well may we ask why such a good man as Tobit has been blinded and tested by God.
Much of Christianity revolves around this dilemma regarding suffering: in some accounts, the testing of faith so that trust in God may grow is a way to cultivate acceptance that God’s love and compassion endure even in very dark circumstances.3 Another well‐known story in the Hebrew Bible and the Quran concerns ‘the patience of Job’, a devout prophet whose faith in God remained unshaken despite the numerous afflictions besetting him, his family and his estate, which were sent to test him.4 In the New Testament, Jesus is tested on many occasions; for instance, for forty days and nights in the wilderness, he is besieged by Satan, but patiently endures each test. Many passages in the Bible exhort Christians in trying circumstances to be Christ‐like in patience, fortified by the promise that their endurance will be rewarded. For instance, in Psalm 40, we read: ‘Be still before the Lord and wait patiently.’5 Given this emphasis on patience, it is unsurprising that Christianity includes long periods of reflection and expectation ahead of times of fulfilment and celebration, such as the four weeks of Advent before the birth of Christ celebrated on Christmas Day, or the forty days of Lent, mirroring Christ’s time in the wilderness, ahead of Easter Day’s celebration of Christ’s resurrection and ultimate triumph over death.
Both Jews and Christians are inspired by the prophet Micah, who suffered much and yet endured, proclaiming, ‘I will wait for the God of my salvation: my God will hear me.’6 Muslims believe that one of the supreme virtues is sabr, defined as having patience with steadfast belief in Allah, and that Allah is with those who are patient, especially those who suffer in any way. To practise patience, Muslims fast for thirty consecutive days during Ramadan. Other world religions likewise encourage patience as a way of growing closer to God and to one another.
Many philosophers, writers and poets, whether espousing a particular faith or not, have also explored what it means to be patient. For instance, the English poet John Milton wrote a paean to patience, ‘When I Consider How My Light Is Spent’ (first published in 1673). Beginning as a lament to Milton’s lost powers as a writer and diplomat through blindness, the poem changes tack mid‐way through with a bold counterpoint, introduced with the words ‘But patience’. Patience teaches him another perspective, he says, in which he may serve his Creator by just ‘being’, rather than by ‘doing’. He shares this revelation in the last line: ‘They also serve who only stand and wait.’7 This understanding of patience is one in which virtue is a proactive state of mind, encouraging a state of watchfulness and hope.
In today’s secular and ever faster‐paced society, with increasingly sophisticated digital technologies, including mobile phones and round‐the‐clock ‘click and collect’ facilities, the value of patience has been seriously challenged. However, a counter‐movement has been gaining strength. Biologists and botanists, among others, have long pointed to nature’s wisdom concerning the length of time it takes for life to establish itself and flourish – as when a seed slowly turns into a plant, which later produces a flower and finally a fruit.8 Since the mid‐1980s, a dedicated Slow Movement has emerged, which advocates a slowing down of life’s pace in all aspects for the general wellbeing of society.9 Slow Looking is one of its more recent offshoots, which advocates that spending time and being patient with works of art will yield lasting benefits for viewers.10
A young woman reads a book intently within the confines of an uncluttered home. Her polished appearance, from her carefully arranged ringlets to the slender pointy shoes extending from her pink dress, complete with a fashionable Empire waistline, initially holds our attention. She may have been here for some time: her feet are propped up on a stool, a cat nestles in her lap and a shawl hangs over the chair. With her attention determinedly fixed on the pages of her book, our own starts to wander. A little boy, who stands listlessly at her side, tugging at his ear, perhaps bids for us to take notice of him. Like the woman, he is smartly dressed; his brass buttons catch in the dim light. Behind, we see a luxurious carpet covering a table, its design and vermillion hues echoing the floor tiles, even as it interrupts the sense of depth and perspective. It keeps the two figures, and our gaze as the viewer, firmly in the foreground. Are we being warned not to dig too deep? The expansive dark background of this domestic interior, now laced with an endless maze of tiny surface cracks known as ‘craquelure’, protests there is nothing for us to see here. We cannot fully make out a little painting on the wall, which apparently depicts an adolescent girl setting a bird free but is positioned so high that it extends beyond the frame. Nor can we clearly distinguish the pattern on the blue‐and‐white Delftware vase displayed on an otherwise empty mantlepiece or windowsill, which frames a view … of nothing, to nowhere.
Layers and nuances abound in this small oil painting, The Reader, painted in about 1817 by the French artist Marguerite Gérard (1761–1837), when she was in her fifties, at the height of her career. At first glance it may appear a simple image of a mother and, we assume, son. Perhaps more will be revealed if we look attentively – patiently. This work, a recent addition to the Barber Institute’s collection, is the only painting attributed with certainty to Gérard in the United Kingdom.11 Now largely overlooked, Gérard was one of the most accomplished artists of her time, with a financially successful career that spanned decades of change, turmoil and innovation during the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars and the Restoration of the monarchy. She had been a pupil of and assistant to her famous brother‐in‐law and master of Rococo painting, Jean‐Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806). Her style and choice of subjects were also informed by seventeenth‐century Dutch paintings, especially the so‐called fijnschilders (‘fine painters’) such as Gabriel Metsu (1629–1667) and Ter Borch (1617–1681). Some of her exposure to such art came through works on paper; for instance, Fragonard bought 280 prints after Netherlandish painters and 69 drawings by Rembrandt (1606–1669) and his school at the sale of the collection of French painter François Boucher in 1771.12 Gérard likely appreciated the quiet but weighty psychological power of Rembrandt, seen in his depiction of tender or vulnerable moments, old age and virtues, like faith and patience, as demonstrated in his painting of Anna and the Blind Tobit at the National Gallery.
Many seventeenth‐century Netherlandish paintings play with, and obfuscate, meaning. Genre scenes in particular convey allegorical or moral messages, albeit with ambiguity. The question is how much we should we read into such works. In Gérard’s case, what may be said about her numerous depictions of motherhood and reading women? Many of them seem to idealise relationships between mothers and female companions, suggesting the importance of female sociability and community for successful mothering within bourgeois domesticity.13 Here, however, motherhood is pared down to a mother and child together in their home. Contextualising this painting within Gérard’s oeuvre and wider debates in the society of her day, does this image reveal the ‘desperate loneliness’ of modernisation, or show a defiant alternative to the increasingly nuclear‐family model proffered during the period?14 Despite (or, perhaps, because of) the lack of visible female allies, perhaps this woman is subverting what patriarchy would deem to be her maternal duties: the constant care and entertainment of children. She may have even lost her patience, a virtue associated with and demanded of mothers, or she could be encouraging this quality in her son. By leaving space for such ambiguities, Gérard provides a lesson in both how valuable and difficult patience can be. Being patient can mean holding back. It may require self‐control (which is another Fruit of the Spirit), empathy and recognition of others as separate beings with their own complicated needs and desires.
The book cradled in the mother’s arms encourages further thought. This large volume, containing a tantalising glimpse of an illustration, could be an encyclopaedia, so perhaps she is studying. Or it may be a sentimental novel. The popularity of this genre in France, and indeed all over Europe, coincided with a surge in female readership. Such novels featured romantic plots that encouraged heightened emotional responses and moral judgements. Uncertainty and ambiguity are literary strategies, just as they are in Gérard’s painting. Perhaps the picture and the book it depicts work together as a complex and topical commentary on the multifaceted and contested figure of the ‘new’ bourgeois mother.
We are told that good things come to those who wait with patience. Will the boy be rewarded for his patience when his mother finishes reading? The woman may also find her own recompense, with the reconciliation of her identities: mother, consumer, face of fashion, romantic, scholar and reader. We may also feel the benefits of our own patience with this work of art, and reap the rewards of slow, close looking and suspended judgement. Gérard thus teaches us something about the abiding virtue of patience, through a painting apparently more concerned with the competing identities of the modern mother in post‐Revolutionary France.
Jane Nicol and Flora Kay
This text presents extracts from an informal conversation between Jane Nicol (Associate Professor Adult Nursing at the University of Birmingham, a Registered Nurse, and Nurse in Residence at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts as part of the pioneering programme ‘Barber Health’) and Flora Kay (Learning and Engagement Manager, Barber Institute) which took place at the Barber Institute in May 2022.
Flora Kay (FK): We’ve walked up into the Barber’s galleries on this beautifully sunny afternoon into a familiar space. We’ve both spent time here in the Beige Gallery and it is here we find The Reader by Marguerite Gérard. It’s a small painting.
Jane Nicol (JN): Where patience maybe isn’t being demonstrated…
FK: The Reader, for me, has understated beauty, perhaps a little bit overlooked in comparison to some of the larger works we have here in the gallery. On first glance, Jane, what is your initial interpretation here?
JN: Well, it’s interesting because, as you say, we’ve walked into the gallery on this lovely sunny, warm day. When looking at The Reader it’s actually quite sombre in colour, and I almost get the feeling that the curtains are closed in the house. So maybe it’s a warm day there too, and they’ve closed the curtains to keep the house cooler.
FK: It reminds me of when my mum would always want to keep the curtains closed to protect the furniture from the sun! I’m immediately transported into that domestic space. We have our woman reader here in her own domestic space who has managed to find a dark room to be alone … or so she hoped … with the cat and her book. There is a figure of a small boy next to her.
JN: Has the boy walked in and found her? It almost looks like she’s deliberately avoiding eye contact (with him). She’s ignoring him and her position, well, she doesn’t look particularly comfortable, does she? Her whole posture is really pronounced, as if to say: ‘I’m looking down at this book and I’m not going to look up because if I do, he’ll see and I’ll have to acknowledge him. I’m just going to pretend … even if I might be just be looking at the same word over and over again.’
FK: So, the book is just a prop. It’s a very still painting, the cat is very still, the woman is very still, the boy is very still. I feel some of the intimacy comes because of the size of it, and how the space is cropped round about the woman and the child. Closed in, it’s almost like a scene that we’re not supposed to see.
JN: I mean it makes me think of … I remember when the kids were younger, people joke about this, but I used to go to the loo and lock the door just to get some peace and quiet! The kids would be always on the go … always. They would be waiting outside the door for me. I’d open the door and they’d be standing there waiting for me like, okay, what are we doing now? And I would have only gone in there just to have a little bit of a rest!So here the child, well, he does have a little bit of a guilty look, doesn’t he? Pulling his ear, a bit awkward and thinking, ‘Ooh, should I be here or should I not be here? Or have I done something I shouldn’t have?’In The Reader actually, the mother and son are a bit disconnected. The mother has got more of a connection with her book. Or should we say the reader … because we don’t know it’s the mother really, we’re making a certain assumption about that. The label does say she’s distracted from her motherly duties by her book and here I do see that this woman is more connected to the cat than she is to the child. The boy isn’t meant to be there.If you were observing that from a safeguarding perspective that might raise a concern … But we sometimes need to look beyond that … real life can be different from your first assessment.
FK: We’ve been thinking about the theme of patience and thinking a lot about this proverbial phrase, ‘Patience is a virtue’. The virtue seen in waiting, not reacting. This view of patience can often feel attached to the female narrative.I’m interested in your perspective and experience of patience in terms of your background in healthcare. Do you see patience as a virtue?
JN: That’s a really interesting point because in health care, if you’re thinking about a one‐to‐one interaction with a person, particularly around rehabilitation, people who have communication difficulties, people who are living with dementia, then patience is needed in that context in relation to how we interact. However, healthcare, and the NHS as an organisation, alternatively cannot be patient. Patience is not what you’re needing, you’re needing action. There’s that dichotomy between who you need to be on a human level and what is needed on an organisational level. Healthcare as an organism … it’s always reacting to something.
FK: How did you find that experience when you worked within a community healthcare setting?
JN: In terms of my identity as a woman in healthcare, I’ve done a lot of self‐reflection about who I am and what drives my identity in the past 12 months. I’ve realised that an awful lot of my identity is wrapped up in being a nurse. There is the expectation that you’re caring, you’re compassionate. You are patient, you have patience. If you’re not able to demonstrate that, because you’re needing to look after yourself, it’s quite hard to face.I think, for my generation, there’s a lot wrapped up in how you were brought up … and I look at my daughters and there has been a shift in attitudes. So, I think some of it is nature versus nurture.
FK: So, you would say this picture captures the times? Would this kind of interaction be unrealistic now?
JN: For me, there’s a difference in how people interact with children in younger families now than when I was a child, and there will be more of a connection now. I feel as a woman, you subconsciously absorb contemporary social norms.Would my daughters have ever stood patiently like that, like in The Reader? They’d have their hand over the book: ‘Look at me! What are we going to be doing now?!’
FK: To you, how else could the scene in The Reader have changed in terms of depicting the mother and child relationship now?
JN: I keep thinking what would happen if you were to take the book away and put a phone there instead. The patience and stillness would go and there would be the movement of scrolling and scanning all the time. In a modern‐day setting, we’re so impatient for the information a phone can give us.
FK: That really transforms the scene, especially going back to your initial point about safeguarding. What about if we switched the gender roles in The Reader, would this transform your interpretation further?
JN: As society in general we’re not patient for anything anymore. We’re not patient to wait till the child’s born, we need a gender reveal party before our child has even got here … The way we communicate has made us less patient because we get information much quicker.So, do we lack peace? Do we lack patience in that respect? I think so. Do we have the attention span to really engage? For instance, here, reading something or really looking at something for a long period of time?We’re racing through things, in a life that is really so short. You don’t want to race through that.
1. The Book of Tobit is one of the Deuterocanonical books (‘Apocrypha’). It does not feature among the canonical texts of Protestantism but does within the Roman Catholic and most Orthodox traditions; nor it is canonical in the Jewish tradition. (Back to text.)
3. See, for instance, Psalm 23, which speaks both of the ‘shadow of death’ and God’s promise of green pastures. (Back to text.)
4. The story is found in the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Job and in Sura 21 of the Quran. (Back to text.)
10. During the spring 2020 Covid‐19 lockdown, the National Gallery began releasing five‐minute art meditation videos on YouTube to promote mental wellbeing among the public; see Slow Art Day n.d. (Back to text.)
13. Not much is known about Gérard’s private life. She never married, although she did act as a surrogate mother for her sister’s child, Alexandre‐Evariste Fragonard, and thus had lived experience of the advantages, as well, perhaps, as the stresses and strains of female sociability and alliances in the maternal realm. See, for example, Jensen 2012, pp. 15–30. (Back to text.)
List of references cited
- Blumenfeld 2019
Blumenfeld, Carole, Marguerite Gérard: 1761–1837, Paris 2019
- Jensen 2012
Jensen, Heather Belnap, ‘Modern Motherhood and Female Sociability in the Art of Marguerite Gérard’ in Reconciling Art and Mothering, ed. Rachel Epp Buller, London 2012, pp. 15–30
- Milton n.d.
Milton, John, ‘When I Consider How My Light Is Spent’, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44750/sonnet‐19‐when‐i‐consider‐how‐my‐light‐is‐spent, accessed 20 June 2022
- NRSV 1989
The Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version, London 1989
- Petrini 2001
Petrini, Carlo, ed., Slow Food: Collected Thoughts on Taste, Tradition, and the Honest Pleasures of Food, White River Junction, VT 2001
- Rich 1986
Rich, Adrienne, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, New York 1986
- Slow Art Day n.d.
Slow Art Day, ‘Slow Looking Meditations with the National Gallery’, https://www.slowartday.com/slow‐looking‐meditations‐with‐the‐national‐gallery/, accessed 4 August 2022
- Wall Kimmerer 2020
Wall Kimmerer, Robin, Braiding Sweetgrass, London 2020
About this catalogue
This online born‐digital catalogue accompanies the National Gallery’s virtual exhibition Fruits of the Spirit: Art from the Heart. It is downloadable for free, and any part of the catalogue can be easily accessed or printed. This format maximises the flexible ways in which these texts can be used, enjoyed and shared. Any mistakes or omissions are the editors’ own.
The exhibition has been curated by Ayla Lepine in close collaboration with Susanna Avery‐Quash. Fruits of the Spirit pairs nine paintings from the National Gallery’s collection with nine paintings from regional partner collections from across the UK. The catalogue and virtual exhibition are accompanied by a series of UK‐wide events, a Smartify audioguide and, from November 2022 until April 2023, an in‐person tour through the National Gallery’s collection.
The catalogue has been co‐edited by Ayla Lepine and Susanna Avery‐Quash, with assistance from Isobel Muir as part of her Student Development activity supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The catalogue’s structure places the nine themes of the Fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, generosity and self‐control – in dialogue with the exhibition’s 18 paintings. Each theme features short essays by a National Gallery curator, a UK partnership museum curator, and an individual or group connected with the regional partner. These community voices provide an exciting and dynamic layer within the project and the catalogue structure. Community contributors include art therapists, artists, refugees, people from Quaker, Jewish and Methodist backgrounds, children, and climate change activists.
Additionally, the London‐based Jewish poet Aviva Dautch was commissioned to write a poem responding to the Fruits of the Spirit themes. Dautch is also a participant in the National Gallery’s new Interfaith Sacred Art Forum, which has been focusing on the theme ‘Crossing Borders’. She selected the Fruit of the Spirit’s theme of Faithfulness in relation to Orazio Gentileschi’s The Finding of Moses. Her words connect this painting to the importance of women in scripture and the significance of Artemisia Gentileschi (Orazio’s daughter) as an artist with her own story to tell. Dautch’s poem also makes a profound connection with the Foundling Museum’s contributions to the Faithfulness theme and the biblical account of Moses’ birth. Dautch’s work speaks of faith in uncertain times, the enduring strength of women in painful circumstances, and the enduring qualities of faith, hope and love in every person’s life.
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