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Uhde, Fritz van - VM - Nigel Halliday

Fritz von Uhde:  The Mealtime Prayer

Jesus in our Home

by Nigel Halliday

I am not much of a fan of nineteenth-century religious painting. To me it often seems twee (Holman Hunt’s Light of the world) or mawkish (Millais’ Christ in the house of his parents) or just weird (Delaroche’s Virgin and Child). So when I came across Fritz von Uhde’s work, I was surprised how much I liked it.

Nineteenth-century art struggled with biblical narratives, because the Enlightenment drove artists towards realism and made symbolism tricky. Millais tried straight historical realism and added symbolism through quirky subject matter: the young Jesus has cut his hand on a splinter, which is supposed to act as a premonition of the wounds of the cross. Holman Hunt tried literal depiction of metaphors – the door at which Jesus knocks, the sheep astray in the fields – but all symbolic meaning effectively has to be superimposed upon the image by the viewer.

Von Uhde has a different way of uniting realism and symbolism: an obviously unreal Jesus – straight out of the History of Art with blue robe, bare feet and halo – walks into a rigorously unglamorous realistic setting of a peasant cottage. And yet, to the eyes of faith, this is a painting of something entirely real: Jesus is present with us in the daily life of our homes.

Von Uhde came to painting only at the end of his twenties. He had dabbled for a year at the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts, but then spent ten years in the army before committing himself to a career as a painter. He studied in Munich in 1877 and then Paris in 1879. He was attracted first to classic Dutch chiaroscuro, but in the early 1880s began to lighten his palette and experiment with plein-air painting, gaining a reputation in the end as one of Germany’s leading exponents of Impressionism. We can see something of both styles in this painting.

Unlike the French Impressionists, who were locked into Enlightenment realism, von Uhde painted not only straightforward landscapes but also overtly religious and symbolic imagery. Often, in the spirit of the Italian Renaissance, he would set biblical scenes in modern-day dress, such as his Last Supper (1886) and Road to Emmaus (1891).

One of the strengths of his work is its lack of sentimentality. There is a winsome simplicity about the faith of this family and no attempt to soften the struggling poverty of the home. There are no pictures on the wall, no rugs on the floor, no covering on the table. The chairs are sturdy and practical. There are many mouths to feed: two parents, five children, and a grandfather, and the only food seems to be the large bowl of gruel, plus one bread roll, although that may be symbolic for the sanctity of the meal.

The man of the house wears a rough blue overall, dirty too-short trousers and huge ungainly wooden clogs. The gaucheness of his one-handed gesture is a great invention. A two-handed gesture would be too grand: so here he grips his cap respectfully with one hand and stiffly motions Jesus with the other hand towards the vacant chair.

The children are not innocently rushing up to Jesus with a ‘let the children come to me’ enthusiasm: they are watching cautiously. The daughter on the right seems distant, even resentful, perhaps wondering what this God has really done for her struggling family. The youngest, head hardly above the level of the table, is clearly more interested in the food.

But the painting seems to be particularly about Jesus’ relationship with the mother.  Notice the directness with which he is looking at her, as she is caught in putting the food on the table. And she looks back at him, without surprise or embarrassment, perhaps even with a hint of a friendly smile – as if Jesus is expected, a regular visitor to the house, known and welcome.

It reminds me of Millet’s Angelus, where the woman of faith, hearing the call of the church bell, stops to pray, whilst her husband awkwardly fingers his hat. 

The painting seems to offer a particular blessing on the mother: that in all her repetitive drudgery of keeping the house, cooking, washing, caring for the children, she remains in close personal fellowship with Jesus and he maintains a close, personal care for her. She is spending her life in caring for the family – and there is very little in the way of reward for it. But Jesus, who in a much greater way spent his life for his people, notices and values and cares.

The title of the painting is The Mealtime Prayer: but this is more than giving thanks for our food. This is a reminder that Jesus really is with us, in our homes, at our mealtimes and in the unexciting day-to-day tasks of daily life. Our daily work has meaning and purpose, because, as we welcome him into our lives and homes, he is with us, provides for us and works through us.

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Fritz von Uhde (1848-1911): The Mealtime Prayer (Das Tischgebet.Komm, Herr Jesu, sei unser Gast’), 1885, oil on canvas, 130 x 165 cm. Berlin: National Gallery.

Fritz von Uhde (1848–1911) was a German painter born into a middle-class family in Wolkenburg, Saxony. At the age of 18 he began to study at the Academy of Fine Arts in Dresden, but after a year left and joined the army, becoming an instructor in horsemanship. He left the army in 1877 and moved to Munich to study at Academy of Fine Arts, and thence in 1879 to Paris. Ironically, although in Paris during the flowering of Impressionism, here his enthusiasm was for the chiaroscuro of classical Dutch painting; and it was only when travelling in Holland in 1882 that he began to experiment with Impressionism. In the 1890s he was back at the Academy in Munich as a professor. He was one of the founders of the Munich Secession and was later part of the Berlin Secession.

Nigel Halliday is a freelance teacher and writer in the History of Art and a Bible teacher at Hope Church in Greatham and Petersfield in the UK. See www.nigelhalliday.org.   

ArtWay Visual Meditation 5 July 2020