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The painting that stopped Bill Murray from committing suicide


Bill Murray was always a soul with an affinity for the arts. He attended pre-med courses at Regis University in Denver, Colorado, which turned out to seem as ludicrous to him as it retrospectively sounds to us. It didn’t take long for Murray to drop out and pursue a more befitting role in life.

However, the early 1970s didn’t bring much joy for Murray. He was arrested after carrying 4.5kg of cannabis onto an aeroplane and inadvisably joking to the passenger sitting next to him that there was a bomb in his bag. Aside from this inauspicious bit, his dabbles in acting were going down just badly.

As he once explained in a press conference for The Monuments Men: “Back when I started acting in Chicago, I wasn’t very good, and I remember my first experience on the stage, I was so bad I just walked out onto the street and just started walking. I walked for a couple of hours, and I realised I’d walked the wrong direction – not just the wrong direction in terms of where I lived but the wrong direction in terms of a desire to stay alive.”

He continues to tell the tale of his fateful despondent stroll: “So, I figured, ‘maybe if I’m going to die where I am, then I’ll walk towards the lake and maybe I’d float for a while after I’m dead’. So, as I walked towards the lake and I realised I’d hit Michigan and I thought, ‘well, Michigan Avenue that runs north too’, and so I started walking north and ended up in front of the Art Institute in Chicago.”

Therein, Murray had somewhat of a spiritual epiphany. As he explains: “There’s a painting there called The Song of the Lark, and it’s a woman working in a field, and there’s a sunrise behind, and I’ve always loved this painting, and I saw it that day, and I just thought, ‘well look there’s a girl who doesn’t have a whole lot of prospects, but the sun is coming up anyway and she’s got another shot at it. And I think that made me think, ‘I too am a person and I get another chance every day the sun comes up’.”

This sudden realisation and salvation through art brings to mind a quote from the Willa Carther novel that shares a name with the painting: “There are some things you learn best in calm, and some in storm.”

The painting in question was created by Jules Adolphe Breton in 1884. As Murray rightly recalls, it simply shows a peasant woman in the flat fields of Normandy with a sickle in hand and the burning orange sun behind her, as she apparently listens to some far-off Lark. Notably, the French painting was voted America’s favourite in 1934 during the Great Depression when it provided a similar boon for the despairing masses. 

Likewise, when Willa Carter wrote his novel in 1915, at the height of the First World War, with the image of the painting in mind, an idea of redemption runs throughout. As he regales in prose: “People live through such pain only once. Pain comes again – but it finds a tougher surface.” 

In truth, little has been written about the picture in a critical sense. It holds no profound place in the reams of Flemish naturalists, but as the comments of Murray and others will attest, there is a simple sentiment to the picture of someone living a life, and that proves more profound than column inches when it’s needed and serves.

(Credit: Raw Pixel)