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Single Work Appreciation Day: 'Huntsman and Herdsman,' Katherine Stone

06/29/2015 07:05 am ET | Updated Jun 29, 2016

I'd like to tell you what I see - how much I see - in Canadian-American painter Katherine Stone's Huntsman and Herdsman:

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Katherine Stone, Huntsman and Herdsman, oil on panel, 17"x11", 2014

Before I can do that, though, let's address a problem I think many of us have with looking at drawings and paintings of children: we are so accustomed to having our heartstrings crudely yanked that the entire genre is suspect. Perhaps we indulge these images sometimes, but we do not make ourselves available to them, as we do to serious art, because we don't trust them. I suspect the entire category of "art depicting children" has become equated with "sentimental art." So it is very difficult to seriously appraise any instance of the category.

And yet it is self-evident that the category cannot be dismissed. Are children a fit subject for art? Yes, of course. So it is necessarily possible to make serious art depicting children. If the genre has been buried under dreck, that does not relieve us of the responsibility, as pursuers after art, to distinguish truth from treacle. I would argue that Stone's painting is serious art, as sympathetic and profound within its idiom as Cassatt and Picasso were in theirs.

What is the image? It is a little boy holding a kitten, rendered almost entirely on the warm end of the spectrum: his skin is peachy, his hair strawberry-blond, pants brown, the kitten orange, an indeterminate earthen environment framing the pair of them. These elements - boy, kitten, warm colors - certainly suggest sentiment.

But the entirety of the rest of the painting is not only unsentimental, but sometimes brutally so.

The boy makes a complex and multi-phase gesture. We see in his carefully crooked fingers that he holds the kitten with that tender reverence for living things which characterizes certain sensitive children. His cradling of the kitten, however, is not a moment of pleasure, but an urgent act of protection. Wrapping his arms around it and hugging it to his chest, he wards harm off from it. At the same time, he understands the futility of his gesture, that the force against which he protects the kitten is stronger than he is himself. How do we know? Because rather than face his opponent, he makes that childish gesture of defense: turning away and scowling. A child wishes and hopes that by closing his eyes, he can become invisible to his tormentor. But even a child understands this is not how things work. The boy here, knowing the kitten's fate is ultimately not his to decide, takes comfort in his awful helplessness from the very creature he seeks to protect: he rubs his cheek against its soft fur, consoling himself with its touch.

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Consider the clear-eyed sympathy with which Stone depicts the scene: how clinically she delineates the fat stiff fingers of a child, his silky hair, his bulging belly and slipping pants. But for all her sympathy, she does not interfere with the terror of the scene.

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Now, what antagonist does this boy sense? This is not clear, because the antagonist is outside the picture. The closest evidence we have of this unseen enemy is the lighting. The light source is mercilessly bright and hard. Where it drops off below the boy's arms, the shadows are deep and sharp-edged, and where it is strong, on his face, even the shadows are bright, filled with bounced light. The light plays the role of a character, the gaze of a character which illuminates the scene. It is a scathing light, located directly in front of the boy, not far from him, and a little above him. In fact, the light source is almost exactly where the viewer's eye would be when studying the painting.

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How terrible a thing - can we ourselves be the antagonist? Of course it is so, how could it not be so? What other threat to the boy's plan to salvage this uncollared feral kitten is there than the adult who stands before him, empowered to allow or to deny his request? As much as this painting is about the fearful vulnerability of childhood, it is also about the grim burden of adulthood, which shines a light down upon the demands of infancy and may say "yes" to some of them, but must say "no" to others.

For my part, I will take a step further. For me, the elemental power of this painting closes the circuit of empathy, so that I see it not only from the point of view which Stone assigns to me, but from the point of view of the boy as well. What do we learn from seeing this scenario as the boy sees it? We are reminded that this condition of childhood, of affection and of terror, does not ever really leave us. We clutch our hopes and loves to our breast, protecting them as best we can, and turn away from the inevitable truth, that we and they are hostages of fate. The remorseless light of adulthood which shines down upon that boy shines down on us as well. Call it the divine if you wish, or the universe, or chaos. Name it as you will, it is the Power that overpowers our desires and aspirations. This is not a painting of a little boy and a kitten. It is a painting of you, and of me, and of everything we hold dear.

That, my friends, is why I'm claiming that Stone has painted an unsentimental painting of a child, and of childhood. You mustn't dismiss it on account of the technical subject. This is a painting of one of the great tragedies woven into the human condition. It is mature art for mature viewers.

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Artwork courtesy of the artist.
Katherine Stone online: http://www.katestoneart.com/