Focus

"Ramon Subercaseaux in a Gondola" by John Singer Sargent

I visited the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art this weekend, specifically to view their Impressionist exhibit. There were paintings there by Monet and Renoir and Degas, but this one, by John Singer Sargent, was the one that captured my attention.

It’s not even one of Sargent’s famous works, but it was intriguing to me.

Sargent painted his friend here, Ramon Subercaseaux, around 1880, as they were both riding in a gondola. Subercaseaux had a good career as a politician, and vineyard owner, and met Sargent as a business contact, wanting Sargent to paint Subercaseaux and his new wife. And from there, their friendship formed.

Though it doesn’t appear to be a spectacular portrait by any means, Subercaseaux came alive to me as I stared at this portrait. This moment, captured in a painting that was to be given by Sargent to Subercaseaux, is an exercise in light and water and personality. When viewed from just inches, the brush strokes are incredible, and the way the light is captured in the streamers behind Subercaseaux is very spectacular. And the colors made Subercaseaux real. He is staring at you, and you are in the gondola with Sargent. This is Sargent’s friend, as he saw him, and as Sargent saw the world.

And all of this was captured with a few brush strokes.

As you look at this portrait, though, there is extreme entertainment happening. The way the water is painted, the way the reflections of the building are portrayed in the water, the way the light comes through the streamers, and the look of the gondola itself all are intriguing, but they are all not clearly focused. Sargent wants you to look at Subercaseaux’s eyes, because his eyes are the only focused point in the entire painting.

There must be a moment when we begin to look into the eyes of people.

I love how Jesus was moved with compassion in the gospel of Mark. His first response to a great mass of people, in Mark 6, was compassion. Jesus looked at them, into their eyes, into their very souls as they looked at him, and he saw a world that perhaps looked like the above painting. It faded, blurred, or enhanced what Jesus saw in those people. Their eyes, their stares, moved him to compassion. He viewed them as lost, as sheep, as needful.

And then he taught them.

We are not told what he said, but it was so intriguing that his audience was captured by his words, and stayed the entire day. Without food, they grew hungry, so Jesus fed their souls, and then fed their bodies.

We must train our eyes to see people this way. Jesus saw people this way in Mark 6. They were a passionate crowd, coming to hear him, even to an area without accommodations for lodging and eating. And he fed them. Sargent saw Subercaseaux this way, as the focus of an intense world.

Whomever you see today, see them as sheep. See them in an environment that has squeezed them and formed them and exhausted them. They are the focus of their own intense world, and Jesus calls us to meet them in their own moment, ready to offer what can only satisfy them.

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