Tuesday, September 13, 2011


(A Meeting of the School Trustees, Robert Harris, 1885, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa)

There are times when I'm traveling down the walls of an art museum when a painting jumps out at me.

And let me be honest here, this happens A LOT!

These "jump-out" paintings grab something deep within my heart.

They twist and pull on my soul.

When this happens, I have no choice but to pay strict attention to them.

This phenomenon occurred when I first laid eyes on Robert Harris's "A Meeting of the School Trustees."


Do I love this painting or what?

First of all, let's discuss my favorite part of any painting......the colors.

This one is full of luscious, earthy tones.

Rich, deep browns.

Mottled tans.

Creamy beiges.

And musty grays.

This painting is a symphony of soft, muted colors.


Here are a few possibilities:

The folks in this painting aren't what I would call  "fashionistas."

Not by any stretch of the imagination.

They are common, everyday working people.

The school teacher is dressed in typical school teacher garb - consistent with her station in life and her time in history.

If we look closely, we see pleats falling gracefully at the back of her chocolate brown skirt.

A bit of a bustle ruffle sits on top of the pleats.

Thickly woven braiding encircles the collar and cuffs of her jacket.

But that's about it in the "glamour and glitz" department for this young woman.

She is, after all, a Victorian era school teacher.

And one of modest means.

It appears that all four gentlemen are dressed in their Sunday best.

Or close to it.

The room they are meeting in is sparsely furnished at best.

No elegant, engaging art works hang on the nearly empty walls.

There are no sumptuous rugs lying on the floor of this "conference" room.

It's pretty much bare bones all the way around.

Except, of course, for the halo of creamy light surrounding our teacher's lovely head.

Do we really have to guess who's the star of this show?

I think not.

Notice the teacher's left hand.

It is gently stretched forward with the palm and fingers open.

That hands speaks volumes.

It's a tool the teacher is using to help present her case to the trustees.

She seems to be asking the trustees for assistance of some sort.

Could it be a boost in financial support?

That would seem reasonable to assume.

We don't know, of course.

Notice how the eyes of the gentlemen are glued to the teacher.

Obviously, the trustees are listening to the teacher speak.

But look at those three and a half pairs of eyes!

(The fourth trustee's right eye is hidden from us.)

Maybe it's just me, but I don't see a glimmer of hope anywhere in those eyes.

These are sober looking gentlemen to be sure!

The hands of two of the trustees are closed, the fingers turned under and away from the open, inviting hand of the teacher.

I think it's safe to assume that our imploring  schoolmarm is having a struggle convincing these trustees to grant her request.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that perhaps the gentlemen would like to grant her wish.

But the funds just aren't there to do it.

Again, we don't know the answers to these pictorial mysteries.

We do know that the soft, muted colors used in this painting contribute to the somber tone in this work of art.

By the way, the "conference room" is not a conference room at all.

At least not in the traditional sense.

It is, in fact, the teacher's school room.

How do we know?

Take a minute and study the lower left hand corner of the painting.

A paper binder rests floppily on a makeshift desk.

The edge of the binder is held onto the desk by a small chalkboard.

An open ink bottle sits to the left of the teacher's right hand.

Once again, that hand is vital to the understanding of this piece of art.

The teacher's hand is staking claim to that desk and everything lying on it.

These are the tools of her trade.

They are vital to her work.

And because of that, they are important to her as a person.

In the painting, the struggle to gain assistance from the trustees continues onward.

But this young woman - still in the blush of her youth - will not be easily broken.

And that's what I love about school teachers throughout time and space.

The really good ones live and breathe their profession.

They love to impart knowledge to their students.

Students whom they adore.

Ultimately, their desire is to change young, impressionable lives for the better.

For the better and for always.


The writing on the floppy binder reads:





Kate, I love you!

You've got it goin' on, girl!


  1. I love it too! My first thought was that her body was leaning forward, giving off the impression that she was being somehwat aggresive. I hope she is giving them a proper teacher's scolding.

  2. Merry, sometimes you can paint a picture with words. I could "see" everything you were seeing.

  3. Every time I go to the Nat Gal, I visit this picture. I think it's significant that none of the men is looking at her straight on. As if they are too abashed by her plea or her demeanour to be comfortable. I have always assumed that she is schooled but they are not, and that might account for the culture clash.

    Tonight when I stood in front of it, I imagined what the topic being discussed might be: money? Teaching methods? Curriculum? Student enrolment?

    It's a wonderful painting, I agree.