When creating a work of art, artists often insert hints or allusions to that which is
cherished or important to them. Other times, the very centerpiece of their painting is
what they consider meaningful or significant in life, whether the viewer knows it or not.
One such significant part of life and a subject that painters have used is that of the
father figure. The Bible lays out guidelines for fathers and how their relationships should
look with their families. Ephesians 6:4 says, “ Fathers, do not provoke your children to
anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” Though sin
darkens hearts, including those of fathers, fathers still hold responsibilities and duties as
the heads of their families. Therefore, a study of paintings of fathers may shed insight
into how different painters viewed their fathers and how well they thought their fathers
followed such guidelines.
It may be argued, then, that painters have a difficult time painting father figures
objectively, or from an unbiased standpoint; how could one paint a father without
thinking of his own father in the process?
When looking at such paintings, then, what qualities stand out most prominently?
What is the father in the painting doing? How is he interacting with others? What facets
of his character are visible, if any?
Paintings of personal subject matter may allow viewers rare opportunities to see
painters personal feelings and dispositions. What can be seen or interpreted in such
paintings? What does the painter allow the viewer to see concerning himself and his
Eastman Johnson, Christmas Time, The Blodgett Family, 1864
Oil on Canvas, 1983.486.
In this family scene, the father stands silently to the side, looking down fondly on
his family. Though neither parent is the center or focal point of the painting, both hold
supporting positions, visibly expressing their care and love for their children. The father
overshadows his family, a symbol of protection and wisdom as his children play freely,
carefree and worrying about nothing. He provides safety, though he is standing watch
silently in the background.
Jacques d'Arthois, Family Group in a Landscape, ca. 1645
Oil on Canvas, 30.95.241.
Though several centuries older than Johnson’s Christmas Time, this
family scene also portrays clear traits of its father figure. The father is seen at the bend
in a road with his family, pointing to some far off object or scene which the viewer is
unable to see. He is the focal point, acting as the stability and strength of his family. He
is the one leading and offering direction and guidance as they travel the path together.
Franz Ludwig Catel, First Steps, ca. 1820-1825
Oil on Canvas, 2003.42.9.
In this powerful and moving scene, a father reaches out, ready to catch his
small child as the child just learns to walk. With the sun rising in the background and the
child taking her first steps, this painting celebrates new life. The father, humbly on his
knees, directly stands for strength and support, ready to catch his girl should she fall.
He forgets all else, offering himself for the protection of those he loves.
Henry Mosler, Just Moved, 1870
Oil on Canvas, 62.80.
In a more jovial scene, a family sits around a table to eat lunch, after
having just moved in. The father sits atop the table, smiling down on his wife and child.
He is relaxed and carefree, loving and serving them amid a muddled house of chaos. In
his eyes, little else matters, particularly that which might worry others. All that matters is
what he loves, and what he loves is his family.
Thomas Eakins, The Chess Players, 1876
Oil on Wood, 81.14.
At this point in the exhibit, the focus shifts from the family to a scene of
close friends, one of which is the painter’s father. Though the father, the middle figure, is
not directly involved in the game being played by the other two, he still is present,
though in the background. He looks down from above and behind, silently watching as
the game unfolds before him. He is the support, though he is not actively involved in the
Thomas Eakins, The Writing Master, 1882
Oil on Canvas, 17.173.
As the end of the exhibit, this painting could be looked at as an extension
of The Chess Players . It also is by Thomas Eakins and also portrays his father, though
in a different setting. In this scene, his father is patiently and diligently at work as a
calligraphist, a master penman. There is little to distract the viewer from the father and
his work, and therefore from the traits that the father displays. He is quiet wisdom,
patience, perseverance. He may exemplify that which the artist himself admires and
desires to imitate, those traits that he wishes to learn from his father.