When creating Song of the Lark, French realism painter Jules Breton could not predict the cultural hold his painting would have on an American audience. As the Industrial Revolution continued its capitalistic dominance across the Western world, art was shifting from the surreal, longing of romanticism to the more grounded, accuracy of realism. Song of the Lark was created at a time when nostalgia for rural life was just beginning to bloom and the future of technology felt boundless.
The oil painting features a young farm girl standing in a field. In her hand, she holds a sickle, behind her a blazing sun rises. Her face is speckled with dirt and she wears no shoes, further showing her unwealthy status. She is looking away from the sun, a solemn yet determined look on her face as the light begins to flood the land around her. She is not grandeur, nor commanding attention, yet her steadfast pose and the glow of the sun behind her have cemented her role in art history as a source of optimism and determination.
Purchased by a New York art dealer and sold to collector Henry Field, the painting soon found a home at the Art Institute of Chicago and in the hearts of American audiences. In Chicago, the painting began to cement itself as an influential piece of American culture.
In 1917 author Willa Carther wrote a novel of the same name as the painting and featured the work as the cover for her novel. In her book, Carther’s main character is an aspiring opera singer who feels a deep connection to the painting. Carther’s character claims that “nobody cared for it but herself, and that it waited for her.” She calls the painting “just right” and feels “boundless satisfaction” looking at the painting.
The grip the painting had on Carther is not a one-off occurrence in America’s cultural sphere. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt brought the painting to the forefront of American culture once again in 1934 at the Chicago World’s Fair. A contest held by Chicago Daily News had readers vote for “America’s Best Loved Picture,” a contest Song of the Lark won. Eleanor Roosevelt unveiled the painting as the winner as part of a ceremony for the World Fair. That year, the painting was “the most reproduced painting in America” and could be found in “nearly all the public school books” in the United States at this time. Eleanor Roosevelt also expressed her fondness for the painting during the ceremony, calling it her “favorite painting.” '
Another beloved American icon to have an encounter with Song of the Lark was actor Bill Murray. Before Murray made it big-time, he was a struggling comedian in Chicago. Money was tight and opportunity felt hard to find. Murray was struggling with suicidal thoughts after a particularly bad performance night. Wandering around the city, he intended to drown himself in Lake Michigan that night. Till he found himself inside the Art Institute of Chicago.
Here he came across Song of the Lark. Looking at the painting renewed his hope and faith in himself.
“I thought, ‘Well, there’s a girl who doesn’t have a whole lot of prospects, but the sun’s coming up anyway and she’s got another chance at it,” said Murray. “So I think that gave me some sort of feeling that I, too, am a person, and I get another chance every day the sun comes up.”
Murray, in a similar vein to Carther’s character, experienced a renewed sense of artistic purpose, a new sense of hope from his visitation with the work. You can thank this painting for beloved future movies from the comedian such as “Groundhog Day” and “The Royal Tenenbaums.”
There is no real declaration as to why this painting has captured the heart of so many Americans. Perhaps it’s the longing for a time when things felt simpler, where the impact of industry was not yet felt in every crevice of land. Or perhaps its message of perseverance is what continues to linger with viewers of the painting.
The subject is not the expected image of the American spirit. She shows no claims to wealth or a pursuit of the American dream, she’s not even technically American. But the message she carries that the sun will always rise again has resounded in American culture for nearly 140 years.
The painting still lives at the Art Institute of Chicago to this day, where visitors still flock to see why the lark sings.