Winslow Homer: Boys in a Pasture and
Rembrandt van Rijn: Portrait of the Artist at his Easel
An old man closed his eyes today. I wonder if he imagined something like this.
This is Boys in a Pasture, painted by Winslow Homer, one of America’s most beloved artists. There’s really very little I can tell you that will improve your understanding of this picture. I could, perhaps, point out the triangular shape formed by the boys, which gives an architectural stability to the composition that lends a sense of permanence to the scene. There’s no threat of rain, no impending dinner bell to ruin the enjoyment of the moment.
Or I could point out that Homer paints from a vantage point close to the ground, which raises the horizon and gives the pasture an enhanced sense of boundlessness and freedom.
The triangle formed by the boys that echoes the shape of the straw hat and points in the direction of the boys’ gaze, which is to a horizon so distant that it lies beyond the edge of the world defined by the frame.
I could also mention that Homer himself was already well past his own boyhood when he painted this portrait, and it is generally accepted that he created this and other works like it to express a certain nostalgia for his own childhood. Significantly, the Civil War lay between Homer’s childhood and this remembrance of it, and many experts agree that this painting also exhibits a sense of nostalgia for the lost youthful innocence of America.
I have no doubt that this is correct. But I think we can perceive a significance to this image that is even more profound, even if it is one that Homer did not intend.
I’ll get to that significance in a moment, but primarily, I think that even without any knowledge of Homer’s techniques or mindset, we all feel the great abundance of casual, easy freedom — the peace — the perfect contentment — that he has captured here. We all remember the time when a day stretched as far as you could see, and when our only responsibility was to rejoice in our own unencumbered existence. We all remember this, and we all yearn for that in a corner of our hearts.
This Rembrandt self-portrait may seem at first glance to have no connection to the Boys in a Pasture. In fact, it may seem more like an opposite to Homer’s painting.
and He shall wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there shall no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.."
- Revelation 21:4 (NASB)
Rembrandt painted several self-portraits throughout his life. Some show us a brash young man ready to conquer the world; others depict the successful and famous middle-aged artist, sure of his greatness and the world’s adulation. And some, like this one, reveal the frail old man who has suffered the loss of his fortune, his reputation, his family, and his health. It is remarkable that Rembrandt had the psychological strength to create such a brutally honest and uncomplimentary self-portrait in the first place.
But in this portrait, there’s a hint of something that I think can be seen in most old men and women. In the eyes of this old man burns the same flame of genius, of optimism, and of freedom that we see in his self portraits as a young man. Inside the frail shell is a soul that in many respects is still as young and alive and energetic as it has ever been. Time has imprisoned this soul in responsibilities and infirmities, and Rembrandt has the courage to show us this without flinching. But if we look into his eyes, we can also see the man that he feels himself to be, despite all the external decay.
Rembrandt is showing us something that happens all around us every da. The woman who shuffles so slowly through the checkout line hands her drivers license to the checkout attendant and wonders, "Who can that wrinkled person in the photo be?" As his name is called, the aged war veteran stands with his cane to accept honor. As his wartime photo is projected on a screen, the crowd gasps with delight to see what a fine-looking young man he was. Inside looking out, though, he’s the same young warrior in the picture. To varying degrees, we are all Rembrandt's image on the outside, but inside, we're all Boys in a Pasture.
I believe the young soul that persists in each of us is a hint that we are not truly made for this world of constant decay. Shouldn’t our soul wither along with our body? It should – unless it is meant for an existence where there is no decay. We can look into Rembrandt’s eyes and see there some hope that we are justified by our faith in Christ and His promise that He has prepared a place for us beyond the grave.
Would you like to use this devotional?
The Bible tells us that heaven is wonderful beyond our capacity to imagine it. Based on this, C. S. Lewis suggested that nothing in heaven will remind us of our earthly lives, since even our most glorious moments here would be too painful to bear. I think that's probably right, but that image is indeed beyond my ability to imagine.
Until I experience it myself, though, images like the one in Homer’s painting can help. It need not be just a picture of a couple of boys. It can speak to us of lost youth, and can also remind us of a youth that will one day be recovered. The yearning the image produces within us is the voice of a soul reminding us of its true home.
An old man closed his eyes today – for the last time. I wonder if he now sees something like this.