With this post I’m deviating a tad from the Jesus program to dwell on a painting that is particularly timely for me and my family, who in the wake of a cancer diagnosis are being forced to hope. My Aunt Marjie, always such a lively presence and so full of joy, has been confronted with the sudden news of a malignancy that’s spreading through her body. And so she—and we who love her—are hunched over in twilight, plucking the last string the doctors have left us, striving to hear music.
George Frederic Watts painted two versions of Hope in 1886—the first with a star in the distance, which is in a private collection, and the second, the more famous of the two (pictured above), without the star. Painted after the death of his granddaughter, it shows a blindfolded woman sitting atop a globe, clutching a wooden lyre that has only one string intact. Instead of using the more obvious allegorical device of light to signify hope, Watts uses music: his figure leans in toward her instrument and tiredly plucks its remaining string, resting in its resonance.
(It reminds me of a photo taken by Julie Adnan for National Geographic, of a little Iraqi boy playing a violin in a music hall ravaged by war, looting, and neglect.)
Perhaps the mood of the painting seems too melancholy to you to suggest hope. Where’s the rising sun on the horizon, or the soaring bird, or the blooming flower? Not here. Instead there is the suggestion of a faint song—invisible, intangible. We tune our ears to it, and it sustains us.
Those who are forced by circumstances to hope are in a misty, dark, uncertain place. Watts knew it well; he was there. And his portrayal of that state is raw, honest; it avoids platitudes. When we hope, we don’t move out of the darkness or the mist. We sit in it still, but we incline ourselves toward favorable possibilities.
The twentieth-century theologian and art critic G. K. Chesterton discusses this painting in his book G. F. Watts (London: Duckworth & Co., 1904). At first glance, Chesterton writes, a viewer might be likely to think the title is an error, and that the painting should more aptly be titled Despair. But if he were to gaze at it for a longer period of time, he might perceive the truth that
there is something in man which is always apparently on the eve of disappearing, but never disappears, an assurance which is always apparently saying farewell and yet illimitably lingers, a string which is always stretched to snapping and yet never snaps. He perceives that the queerest and most delicate thing in us, the most fragile, the most fantastic, is in truth the backbone and indestructible.
The personified Hope of Watts’s painting “is dim and delicate and yet immortal, the indestructible minimum of the spirit”; she holds to her breast “something damaged but undestroyed.” Her name is not Hopeless or Despair—for if it were, she would put down her lyre, considering it no longer capable of making music. But instead she keeps on clutching it and relishes the one beautiful note that sounds from its string.
The audacity of hope
The phrase “the audacity of hope” is familiar to most Americans, it being the theme of President Barack Obama’s address to the Democratic National Convention in 2004 and the title of his most popular book. But it didn’t originate with Obama; he said he took the phrase from a sermon he heard in 1990 by the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church in Chicago. Wright opened his sermon with an extended analysis of the Watts painting. (This wasn’t the first time the painting was used as a sermon illustration: Martin Luther King Jr. had cited it in the opening of his sermon “Shattered Dreams.”) He then went on to liken the figure of Hope to the biblical Hannah, who had “the audacity to hope,” to keep praying to God for a child even though there was no physical sign that she would ever be answered in the affirmative. “With that one string she had left,” he preached, “Hannah had the audacity to make music and praise God.”
Why is Hope blindfolded? Because she sees with the eyes of the heart what the physical eyes cannot yet perceive. Just as she hears a song that some others cannot hear.
By way of application, Wright exhorts his audience to have the audacity to hope in their own lives, whether that be for a job, healing, reconciliation, or whatever. One minute, he says, we’re on top of the world, and then something devastating comes along, leaving us feeling isolated and in tatters. But at that time, we—like Hannah, like Hope—need to take whatever we have left and use it to play music. Wright also discusses the painting in light of global issues like war, racism, and famine.
Furthermore, he references the African American spiritual “Over My Head”: “Over my head I hear music in the air. . . . There must be a God somewhere.” Composed in the context of forced labor, abuse, and indignity on end, the song nevertheless acknowledges the existence of an unseen realm in which joy reigns. Despite our harsh circumstances, we can inhabit that space of joy, of optimism; we can call it down to ourselves, from the God who gives it freely.
Hope is hearing the music up above our heads.
Without it, sorrow becomes despair
Besides partially inspiring Obama’s political platform, Watts’s Hope is also the framing device of a 1922 fictionalized short film of the same title, starring Mary Astor.
The movie opens in Watts’s studio, where we meet a downcast model. She tells Watts that she’s sorry, but he had better find a different model, one who exudes happiness. Watts tells her to cling to hope, for “without its golden thread, sorrow becomes despair.” The artist then pulls out the painting Hope and proceeds to tell the woman the story that inspired it—one of a woman who hopefully awaited her beloved’s return from a dangerous sea voyage.
“Is it . . . Hope?” the woman in the outer narrative asks Watts, wondering at the figure in the painting and the sad-looking instrument she holds. “All the strings are gone, save one.”
“Yes, that is love,” says Watts. “As Hope bends low to catch its single note she counts the rest well lost if that remains.”
In other words, love hopes all things (1 Corinthians 13:7).
So during this time of anguish my family and I channel Hope, bending low to catch the sweet sound of victory over cancer, to inhabit that 5 percent chance. We anticipate the best of all possible outcomes, knowing that although Marjie will likely grow fragile and thin and may very well be stretched close to her breaking point, she—like that harp string—is indomitable. And love will bear her up.