Edmund Leighton is a little known artist, yet his work can be seen most everywhere; from coffee houses, restaurants, shopping malls, book covers, art museums, as well as posters at Michael’s and other novelty and art stores. If I showed you one of his paintings you would most likely say:”Oh. Yeah. I’ve seen that before.”, yet rarely is his name associated with such works.
However, there is one piece of Leighton’s that holds a special place with me. One that speaks a thunderously profound and emotional message, yet does so in a most silent and gentle way, that it can be almost deafening for some. It is, in my opinion, one of his greatest pieces, mainly due to the sensitive subject matter and the audience it addresses. A subject matter I will address towards the end of this blog.
But for now, I’ll go into the details of the drawing and what was used to create it. This was more of a “practice”, just to see if I could do it. When I saw this piece of Leighton’s, I asked myself: “I wonder if I could draw that in charcoal and carbon?” I’ll let you, the audience, decide if it is a decent rendition.
Since the piece itself has a very broad range of darks, going from near black to white, this drawing incorporated multiple grades of charcoal and carbon. I used carbon mostly for the water and hair. I used charcoal for just about everything else.
Here is a picture of how things started. I’ll present the final result in just a bit.
I used grades HB and 4B carbons incorporated with grades H, 2B and Primo Grande Elite 5000 Ultra Black charcoals. I used felt and a softened blending stump for blending. I used a chamois for creating the softer tones and for creating highlights in the water. I then gently went over the background with a large “mop” brush to create a sort of “mist” or haze.
The use of water in this piece by Leighton has so much symbolism to it, that I really wanted to focus on preserving the mood he created by trying to capture the way the light reflects off the surface. It creates an ambiance that perfectly enhances the setting.
Perhaps the most dynamic aspect of the piece is how Leighton begins from the bottom of the painting using rich blacks and deep grey hues, then gradually lightens the tones and softens the values as he moves upwards towards the top of the drawing. Very symbolic and very appropriate for the setting and subject matter. Below are my final results.
TITLE: TO THE UNKNOWN LAND (original by Edmund Leighton)
SIZE: 22″ x 30″ (mounted on archival foam board and black matting)
Charcoal and carbon on Arches white 140 lb watercolor paper.
Pay close attention now, because you are going to get a lesson in what makes this piece by Leighton so powerful.
Depending on your knowledge of history and religion, you may, or may not notice there is a mixture of religious beliefs taking place within Leighton’s work. An angel, which is common across several religions and cultures; and a “boat man”, which is very specific to ancient Greek mythology. A figure commonly known as “Charon”, the boatman. I will address the “boatman” first.
Leighton substitutes the role of Charon with a much softer and more natural character. While Charon is often depicted as a menacing, hooded figure, giving passage only to those who could pay, he was noted for his piercing eyes, intense expressions of face, and his rage. Charon showed no kindness, had no sympathy, and certainly no charity.
Leighton completely reverses this to a role more befitting a religious monk. While the figure is hooded and thus remains a bit mysterious, if you look closely, you will see a look of sadness, of pity, of kindness and tenderness on the face of the oarsman. His demeanor is not menacing nor threatening in any way, but gently reassuring. His head is bowed and his eyes averted, showing respect for the deceased and the grieving Mother; a recognition and understanding of the gravity at hand. Remorse, sympathy and charity are conveyed.
Now….lets talk about the angel. She gazes upon the face of the child with sadness, warmth and understanding. There is sorrow there, but a sense of peace. You will note the delicate features of the angel’s face and hands. She appears fragile, yet there is strength. An assurance radiates from her that the child will be in ‘good hands”. Her unfolded wings demonstrate majesty and grace, a symbol of office or status, a sign of the divine. And note the rather symbolic gesture Leighton captures in the placement of the angel’s wings: they dip into the water. Very meaningful is that little gesture.
Pay attention to the placement of the angel’s hands; one holds and cusps the child’s head, while the other lays gently on his bosom. If you have ever witnessed a Mother holding her child asleep on her lap, you would have seen the exact same hand positioning. It’s an expression of comfort and trust. What a beautiful symbol of Motherly love and tenderness. It’s as if Leighton has painted the angel to say: “Fear not. You are safe with me.” He’s switching the role of guardian here. When the child was alive on Earth, his Mother was there to protect him, to nurture him, to care for him, and to love him. Now that the child has passed, the angel will guide his soul into the afterlife. Magnificent!
An element so often discarded as “decoration” within Leighton’s piece, is the presence of white roses. You can see them filling the end of the boat where the angel and child rest. You will also note a few roses resting on the ground at the knees of the grieving Mother. White roses are a symbol of purity and true love. A love that is committed. A love that is sacrificial. A love that is eternal. Stop and think now, for just a moment, about what you are seeing and why the white roses are placed where they are. Leighton did an excellent job in relaying his message. Below is a close-up of the angel and child.
Lets change our focus to the water. It is calm, save for the small ripples caused by movement of the boat and the dipping of oars. Have you ever been to a lake when the water is perfectly calm? If so, you will know that its surface is like a mirror, reflecting what we see and touch in the material world, creating what appears to be an alternate universe from that which we live in.
Reflections from a water’s surface are caused mostly by those things that we see above us; the tops of trees, the tops of nearby mountains or hills, an airplane flying overhead, the sun in the sky, or the moon and stars at night. It’s as if we can look down, to see what is above us. And sometimes the reflection is so perfect, it’s as if you could reach into the water and touch what you see. But many of the things reflected are beyond our reach. They are in another part of the universe, much like the angel we see in this drawing.
A reflection in the water affirms that what we see materially, is real. And like an envelope that encompasses a letter, it’s as though the land we walk upon is placed between two heavens. Ponder that for a moment, if you will. Another subtle message by Leighton.
And so it is that Leighton utilizes this attribute of water to emphasize that the two worlds have now come together at this very climatic moment; the natural and the supernatural. The reflection of the boat and it’s passengers on the water’s surface represent that the ‘unknown” has become the “known”. It has materialized and become real. It is not an illusion or figment of the imagination. It is reality.
The mist in the background creates an air of enchantment, of wonder and of mystery. It blends into the horizon where heaven and earth meet, creating a unity, if only for a brief moment.
Behold the grieving Mother on the shore. Note her location. Now look back towards the angel in the boat. What do you see? The answer is simple and it’s a stunning message to those who understand what it represents. Give up?
The answer is: distance. That distance represents “separation”. Not only did death separate life from the body of the child, but now the body of the child is soon to be separated from his Mother’s arms. A separation that will last for the rest of her natural life.
The boat has left the shore. There is no turning back. What is done is done and can not be undone. Much like when the lid of a casket is closed and it is lowered into the ground, so too is the turning away of the boat from shore.
There is another element of separation demonstrated by Leighton. Notice that the angel is upon the water and the Mother is upon the shore. Another stark contrast. How? Because the surface of the land is known to us. We see it and can touch it easily. But the depth and darkness of the water and what lurks below is unknown to us. We can not see it. We humans fear death, but we fear the unknown most of all.
You will note that the woman has raised her hands to cover her face. She also bows her head and weeps. This is a natural gesture for many and is a sign of guilt and shame: two emotions that are all too common in a parent that has lost a child. Many times are spoken the words: “If only I had..” or “I should have never..” They stand accusing themselves for the child’s death.
The Mother’s black cloak and hood are symbolic of death and penance. Black has symbolized death throughout history across nearly every culture. It represents an emptiness and void, a feeling that so often follows an afflicted Mother. As I mentioned before, Leighton begins at the bottom of his piece using blacks and progresses upwards with ever brightening tones until a near white is reach near the top center of the piece. A pathway is painted. A symbol of transition from darkness to light: from death to eternal life.
The boat leaving the shore is the manner in which the soul of the child will be carried into heaven. There are no bumpy roads to traverse; no pot-holed streets to navigate; no hills to climb; no steep grades to struggle. It is effortless and serene. It is gentle and soothing.
Despite how sad and emotional Leighton’s work is, there is one fundamental theme, so profound, it practically gets overlooked. I’m talking about charity.
The entire picture is filled with elements that give the sense of gentleness, tenderness, and a deep love. Consider the demeanor of the angel and the oarsman; there is tenderness and compassion expressed. Behold the gentleness and tenderness in the gestures of both; their faces truly show remorse and sympathy. They are expressing care and concern for others. They serve charitably
And consider the Mother who is grieving on the shore. It took tremendous courage and strength to let her child go. You will also note she does not attempt to enter the water to follow her child. She shows the will and stamina to continue on. She is accepting of this fate. That is love.
These are not actions done simply out of politeness. These are actions performed out of love for others. There is love and respect being shown for the dignity of human life. Love gives us courage, it knows no fear. It is kind and patient. Love trusts completely, it does not anger easily. Love sacrifices entirely. And it is Love that helps us to overcome the darkness.
Edmund Leighton’s work is simply brilliant.
All Mothers are special. They have brought life into the world. But some Mothers are…well…more special than others. For when they experience the loss of a child, they share a common bond with many others. It is a bond that can unite even the most ardent of enemies. It is an event that can unite even the staunchest of adversaries. We are seeing this now with the events of little Charlie Garb from the United Kingdom.
As a former health care worker, I’ve had to witness and participate in my share of traumas and tragedies. I can tell you first hand, from many experiences, there is no greater pain and no more difficult experience than to witness the death of a child. Nor is it easy to be present when the Mother learns of her child’s death. It is one thing (speaking as a man) to see a woman cry because she is sad; but it is an altogether different thing to hear a woman’s soul as it is torn asunder. There simply are no words to describe it.
Why is the death of a child so difficult for us? Because children represent innocence and purity, they are bundles of love and joy. And it is within our nature to value the preservation of such because we look upon that child, as a representation for all that is good in the world.
When a child dies, a void is created. The grieving parents must deal with an emptiness they are not accustomed to, and it usually affects the Mother the most. They must learn to deal with an empty bed, an empty coat, an empty swing…an empty chair at the table. Emptiness can not be held. It can not love you back. It can not kiss you gently on the cheek, nor can it embrace you with the intensity of love and joy as that of a child. It is a void that simply can not be filled.
I pity and grieve for such parents – for any parent that loses a child. I do understand what they are going through. I can relate to their situation. But I simply can not know how they feel. I’ve never lost a child of my own before, as I have no children. The closest I’ve ever come was the death of my 18-year-old niece on Easter Sunday morning. That was hard enough. So to all the “special” Mother’s out there; you have my deepest sympathies, my deepest compassion, and a piece of my heart.
It takes nerves of steel when working within such an environment. There simply is not time for emotions. But sadly, no matter how steel-like your nerves are in such situations, the continued exposure over time does something to your head, especially when you have no one to help you vent. When you have no spouse to talk to, no family that is willing to listen, no friends to lean on….the choice of “outlets” becomes very limited and some, very dangerous. Besides, who in their right mind would want to listen and relive such events anyway? And there are still moments when memories come flooding back, where I find myself asking:”Could I have done more? Did I do something wrong?” I thank God that I was able to find solace within the sound of nature on the many long walks I have taken.
So, if you see me walking on the back county roads, far outside of town, along the tree-lined fields, or along the meandering streams…don’t be insulted if you happen to wave “hello” and I don’t wave back. Don’t feel snubbed if I don’t look up and acknowledge your presence. For my mind is probably elsewhere, somewhere between the present and the past. Sifting through the memories and slowly letting go of those children, whose faces and voices still linger in my mind, as they bring with them the same old questions from years ago, whose answers I am still searching for.
But life goes on, and so do its struggles. And at some point in the future, the Angel of Death will approach on silent wings and cast his dark shadow over me. His cold, chilling hands will come to rest gently on my shoulders, his blackened wings will engulf me and in a gentle whisper, he will speak:”It is time.” I can only hope upon my calling, that I may go to meet the children whose faces I occasionally see in the shadows and whose voices I sometimes hear in the wind.
I hope to meet their Mothers, whose cries and agonies I fully remember, can sometimes be heard in the distant thunder of an approaching storm. I hope that day will be one filled with joy and gladness, a day of peace and serenity, where love and kindness have replaced the malice and madness from yesteryear. I know then I will be at peace. I will know then that all things have been let go. I will know then that what I did for others throughout my lifetime was the right thing to do. I will know then, that in my lifelong journey, along the path to the “narrow gate”, that I have arrived and made it…..To The Unknown Land.
May peace be upon you.
This drawing will soon be available FOR SALE. I will post the sale price under the FOR SALE tab when it is ready. If you are interested, please feel free to contact me with any question you may have.
Because this is a tribute to Edmund Leighton, I will NOT be making regular prints for this drawing. Instead, I will ONLY be offering Limited Edition prints with credits to the original master artist, Edmund Leighton. Only 100 Limited Edition prints will be made. Once they are sold – that’s it. I’ll be posting their price, description and size as well.
A portion of ALL sales (prints and original) will be donated to St. Jude’s Children Hospital. Thank you for reading.