Paintings make brilliant inspirational story prompts sometimes. I love to wander the Kelvingrove Art Gallery in Glasgow, among the celebrated Glasgow Boys and recognize captured moments of human experience that we can all identify with. One painting which has been preoccupying me lately is The Hind’s Daughter by James Guthrie. This one is in the National Galleries in Edinburgh.
I like to imagine what the girl’s thoughts are – the child in the painting – and what life was like for her. A hind is a peasant farmer who works the land, toiling for little, subjugated by the soil.
It’s a cold lowland morning with no colour in the sky. Trees stand skeletal, hanging their bare limbs on the air. Before her lies the field of cabbages to be cut, the rough knife in her little hand, already calloused from too much toil. She looks up and into the eyes of the painter, and wonders why he chose to paint her. Her boots are claggy with mud, worn and heavy. There is nothing beautiful or interesting here, she thinks, yet he seems to think so. He turns his head this way and that, sketches quickly, his hand making quick darting movements across the canvas.
They say his name is Guthrie, and he’s been hanging about the village for two weeks now, looking for likely subjects to paint. Well, it looks like he’s alighted on another one.
They say he lives in the big city in Glasgow, and that he has a studio in Paris too. What is his life like there, in that big city, away from these lanes and fields full of cabbage crops? She wonders if he sits in a fine carriage and eats roast beef on Sundays.
She stares at him, the Hind’s Daughter, with that unequivocal searching gaze, confronting him, examining him, seeing right through to his core. She assesses him. He doesn’t look rich, she decides. He looks poor, like herself, but then again not poor because he is free to walk about the fields all day with a paint brush in his hand instead of a knife for cutting cabbages.
What does he see when he looks at me, she wonders? And why does he bother? Doesn’t he realise what this life is like?
What does she see when she looks at him? She sees a man who doesn’t have to cut cabbages, who went to school and was taught to read, who reads books. When he stands in a mudbound field surrounded by rows of cabbages, he does it because he wants to, not because he has no choice, and what he wants is to paint what he sees.
When she asks him if she can see the painting, he tells her it isn’t finished yet. He thinks she won’t understand.
But he has the temerity and the honesty to paint the critical, assessing look in her eye, the blatant stare.
The Hind’s Daughter is looking right back at the painter, at us, as if to say “What on earth are you doing? And why? How come you can afford to stand in a field and paint, stand in this art gallery and stare – at my brutal life. Who feeds you? Who cuts your cabbages? Where do you come from?”