Why are There Paintings?


Paintings are to teach man to see the glory of human existence.

— Henry Hensche

Why are there paintings?

That’s not a vexed question.

Paintings uncover truths.

They do so by making visible what was invisible.

Just as surely as a scientific observation does, that act of revelation increases humankind’s storehouse of knowledge.

As Martin Heidegger said in “The Origin of the Work of Art,” a painting allows the subjects it depicts to “step out into unconcealedness.”

“In the work, if there happens an opening up of beings into what and how they are, a happening of truth is at work,” he said.

In N.C. Wyeth’s The Call of the Spring, the boy and his grandfather don’t merely trudge toward the fishing hole; they march, as soldiers do into battle. The old man shoulders his pole, proving his claim to the mastery of the veteran angler—a mastery the boy can only aspire to. The boy is still in his spring; the old man is in his winter.

Where they are heading is a mystery, but we can assume the fishing will be good, or their steps would be laborious and less determined. The pails they carry are large enough to hold a kingly catch.

Perhaps they are heading for a spring. If so, the painting’s title would imply that a watering place—not the season of the year—summons the boy and his grandfather. The spring must be teeming with shad and trout.

The meadow they cross is verdant and in full bud, just like the boy. The shadow he casts merges with his grandfather’s, showing one day soon he will fill the old man’s shoes. Right now, he is shoeless.

The year is 1910 (we know from the signature): a pastoral, bygone era, when boys learned the lessons of adulthood from fishing trips like this one; an ancient rite of passage dating back 10,000 years, when the Lenni-Lenape fished these same waters; a modern rite of passage Ernest Hemingway celebrated in his Nick Adams stories. Will the boy live to teach fishing lessons when he is a grandfather? Or will he forget—or perhaps perish in the Great War, only eight years in the future? Perhaps there will be only eight more springs in his life, even fewer than in the old man’s.

Paintings are happenings of truths, as Heidegger says.

They uncover truths by making visible what before was invisible.

Above: Judging Amy by Robert Francis James. Oil on canvas board.  10 x 8 inches. The Call of the Spring by N.C. Wyeth. Oil on canvas. 42 x 28 inches.