The Other Columbus: When a painting is like a lover

‘The Return from the Fields,’ a work by Jules Breton now on display at Columbus Museum of Art, demands special attention

Scott Woods
“The Return from the Fields” by Jules Breton

I have an ongoing and torrid affair with the work of Jules Breton, so given the opportunity recently to experience one of his paintings in the flesh has lightweight consumed me. Breton’s “The Return from the Fields” (1867, oil on canvas) is on display at the Columbus Museum of Art as part of "Through Vincent’s Eyes," an exhibit featuring work by Van Gogh, as well as many of his influences. And while it is a fine exhibit overall, “Return” demands special attention. Here, with you, I only want to talk about it, to consume it, to sin-eat it, to share it, to throttle it, and then talk about it some more, in that order.

1.

I like this painting.

2.

English writer Jeanette Winterson proffers in her 1995 essay “Art Objects” the following challenge:

“‘Do I like this?’ is the question anyone should ask themselves at the moment of confrontation with the picture. But if ‘yes’, why ‘yes’? and if ‘no’, why ‘no’?...If the obvious direct emotional response is to have any meaning, the question ‘Do I like this?’ will have to be the opening question and not the final judgement.” 

Challenge accepted. 

“Return” is set at the end of a long workday in the fields, and its subjects are cast in just enough shadow to be sexy. I know this time of day well. Twilight is my favorite part of a sunset, the day’s fire dipped just below the horizon, still managing to reach across the sky to pull the comforter of night over the moon it has enticed from its quarters. In one minute, stars dot the sky in numbers that can be counted on one hand; in the next, a single blink spills constellations slick and quiet across the ceiling of the world. What glow remains finds its way into the skin of whoever you are with, imbuing them with bronze promise. 

So yeah, it’s safe to say I know this time of day very well.

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“Return” captures all of this romantically and Romantically, showing us three women walking away from the work of the day in casual embrace, hair covered, but with individual flair. The ebbing light hits them in a way that both shades and illuminates, shaving off the edges of work drudgery while ennobling and caressing them both at once. Everything about the world is subsumed by their carriage, enthroned in their tired eyes and shaded cheeks. They have become avatars for the end of every day. This is not art you observe; it is art you have lived.  

The child that chases after them is practically an afterthought, and I love that about this crew. Their work is done. Whoever’s child this is dead weight amok, probably as enamored of the women as I am. For his trouble, a sickle-shaped warning hovers just in front of him, cautioning whatever pull of the day he represents that it is officially unwelcome. It’s Miller Time, reaper style. 

3.

I could write six poems, easy, off of this painting. Ten if I settle into a few forms hungry for such grist. After that, I’d have to get creative. Breton published a couple of books of poetry, so perhaps he is as much a poet as I am a painter, which is to say, not much. While I have seen the pages of his collection Les Champ Et la Mer, I do not read French, so I cannot use the work as a gauge. However, seeing as how one of his autobiographies (La vie d'un artiste, or The Life of an Artist) opens with this passage:

“The Garden of Delight, the cradle of Adam, we have all dwelt in it.

Those sudden bursts of joy whose source is unknown to us, mysterious smiles that without cause gladden our hearts, are but dim reminiscences of it. Thus does the eye preserve the image of the sun long after it has ceased to look at it.”

…it’s quite possible he’d take me in a poetry slam too.

4.

I had been enraptured with the piece for so long that I was startled to discover an older woman next to me. She was taking in the painting as well, but because I was camped out in front of it and social distancing remains the mandate du jour, she had to look at it from an angle. I implored her to take my spot, that the work must be seen head-on. She accepted the offer, and I encouraged her to get closer, promising the painting would reveal things if she took a couple of steps forward. We both leaned in, and I pointed out the trick of the stars, how a change in distance made the stars work the same way they did in the real world: first one, then many. I then showed her the moon, imperceptibly rising out of the field, but she threw a flag on the play on that one. “That can’t be the moon,” she said. “If you can still see the sun, then the moon is in the wrong place. It should be behind us.” Rather than try to explain how the moon orbits the earth in a given month and, as such, finds itself in visible proximity to the sun with some frequency, I said, “Chalk it up to artistic license.” She liked that answer, and after a few moments chatting about bits of the work we liked, went our separate ways.

But one day she’s going to look up and see a crescent moon hanging in the sky while the sun is still hanging around, and she’s going to remember our conversation in front of a 154-year-old painting. And in that moment, she’ll say, “Well, I’ll be damned.”

5.

As a student of history, the year of the painting’s conception does not escape me. Did Breton know of Robert S. Duncanson, a Black landscape painter of some renown on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1860s? Had he ever seen Duncanson’s most famous work, “Land of the Lotus Eaters,” painted six years before “Return”? 

Less pleasant to consider is the realization that when “Return” was being slapped onto canvas in 1867, America was only two years past Confederate General Lee’s surrender to Grant, setting formerly enslaved Blacks on a course toward Reconstruction that still looked very much like the generations of destruction from which they had been “released.”

As Bretons’ work was popular in the United States, as well, I wonder what a former enslaved Black would make of the nobility and sentimentality conferred upon Breton’s reapers, and how American collectors were drawn to the work as they sought to establish a nostalgia for simpler, better times. The 20th century hadn’t even been born yet and already the Macbeth-like scrubbing of hands was in effect, and work like Breton’s was lotion to those Americans who wished to get past the soul-wrenching fever of civil war. 

6.

Even from a young age, I have always understood why Clint Eastwood’s assassin in “The Eiger Sanction” spent his blood money on rare paintings. “Return” is like a lover who gets me: I more than love this painting; I like this painting. I want it to be around. Most honest people will tell you that “like” is the harder emotion to win. Given enough time with the painting and knowing there were scores of other Breton paintings that worked magic just like it, you can understand why Van Gogh walked 52 miles to visit Breton, only to immediately turn around from intimidation (at his walls, no less). 

Like I said, I like this painting.