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« Great Britain before the Great War | Main | Willa Cather and Isabelle McClung »


THE SONG OF THE LARK is Cather's most self-consciously "arty" novel--not necessarily because of any inherent "literariness" in the book itself (although that may be the case), but rather because the novel makes reference to so many other works of art.

Of course, there's plenty of talk of Tolstoy throughout, including references to ANNA KARENINA. And Thea has some dramatic moments in the Chicago Art Institute.

Perhaps the most obvious art reference is to Jules Breton's painting, "The Song of the Lark," which hangs in the Art Institute. It's a lovely (or cloying, depending on your perspective) bit of French romanticism.

The major question of the painting is what exactly is the nature of the "song." Is it from the tiny lark flying in the sky in the upper-left corner of the painting? (You may not be able to see it too clearly in this reproduction.) Or is the song the one the girl seems on the verge of singing? Or is it the consonance between the two songs, the bird and the girl, together in harmony with the sunset (or dawn)?

Note also the presence of the rather dangeous-looking scythe in her hand in an otherwise pastoral and calm world--not to mention her grip on that scythe. If she is indeed a woman who works in the fields, where are her gleanings? And while we're at it, those fields look pretty trimmed already. So what's the scythe for?

Many, many questions, as always the case with French romanticism. But nonetheless, this is definitely the painting from which the book gets its title.

Of course, there are many more references to art in the text. Another big one is the Manet painting in the Nathanmeyer house in Chicago. The Nathanmeyers are considered true art patrons--and their taste is central to the thematics of the book (that is, that an artist should perform only for those with artistic spirits).

Here's the Manet painting in its full form. It presents a musician, probably a singer, stepping out of a rehearsal hall, holding a bag of grapes. You should note that the woman is eating in public, a bit scandalous for the time. (My grandmother, rather Old World in her thoughts, absolutely forbade eating in "public"--that is, while walking on the street or sitting in a car.) And Manet's singer is apparently heedless--or careless?--of the fact that her petticoat is showing under her rather heavy dress, a sign perhaps of her sexually carefree attitude. It, too, is a tad scandalous. But does she know? Or care? (And does Thea?)

By far, Manet was Cather's favorite artist. She felt closest to his art in her own: perhaps its careful delineation of strong characters, perhaps his frank depictions of sexually charged relationships (the most famous is here). It's a long-discussed question of how Cather was influenced by Manet.

Finally, and on another note, Thea runs out to "Panther Canyon" in Book Three to find respite from her life in Chicago. Actually, Cather has a very specific place in mind: Walnut Canyon in Arizona, east of Flagstaff. It's all now a National Monument, some fairly well-preserved cliff dwellings and Anasazi cliff paintings in the high, forested desert. Here are two pictures you might find interesting: one of the canyon itself and one of the remaining cliff dwellings where Thea spends the summer.




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