The 'Glimmering Dream' of Joan of Arc

Jules Bastien-Lepage / Metropolitan Museum of Art

This Memorial Day marked 485 years since Joan of Arc was burned at the stake on charges of heresy. The Catholic saint, who led the French army to victory at the siege of Orleans before she was captured and tried by an enemy court, was only 19 when she died, and only 13 when she saw the visions of saints that she said called her to fight for France. In the January 1884 issue of The Atlantic, poet Helen Gray Cone captured that moment of revelation, which ended the carefree days of Joan’s childhood:

Such days are gone, and strange things come instead;
For she has looked on other faces white [...]
Has stooped, ah Heaven! in some low sheltering shed
To tend dark wounds, the leaping arrow’s bite,
While the cold death that hovered seemed her own.

And in her hurt heart, o’er some grizzled head,
The mother that shall never be has yearned;
And love’s fine voice, she else shall never hear,
Came to her as the call of saints long dead;
And straightway all the passion in her burned,
One altar-flame, that hourly waxes clear.

Hence goes she ever in a glimmering dream.
And very oft will sudden stand at gaze,
With blue, dim eyes that still not seem to see:
For now the well-known ways with visions teem.

That poem, “Lepage’s Joan of Arc,” is based on an 1879 painting, Joan of Arc by Jules-Bastien Lepage, that happens to hold a special place in my family mythology.

The painting is a favorite of both my parents, two artists who met at New York City’s Cooper Union in the 1980s. When I emailed my dad to tell him I’d found the painting in the Atlantic archives, he reminded me that the two of them used to visit it often at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Your mom and I would always make a special trip to see it and pay homage,” he wrote. “I like to think that we each discovered the painting independently and brought our mutual love for it into the relationship, further evidence of some kind of fated convergence for the two of us.”

I asked my parents to tell me how they came to love Joan of Arc. First, my dad’s reply:

Among the formal aspects that I most admire about the painting are its tapestry-like surface, a confluence of backyard gardens, weedy turf and overhanging tree branches that reveal brief portals in some places, into a more distant space. The wonderful part of it is that all this riotous activity brings all the visual drama of the painting right up to the surface, as though it’s all happening on one plane.

Your mom also noted the painting’s scale—over nine feet in each dimension, as a totally encompassing experience—especially when you get up close. It completely fills your field of vision. Within that scale, the actual Joan of Arc figure is virtually life-size, kind of making it a mirror for your own body.

I would say this work has been a big influence on both of us. Lepage was a late-comer to the impressionist, naturalistic style and he brought with him all the ambitions of the great themes one would paint if they were an academician. He never quite fit into either camp. He wanted to make work about the things he knew best and although he appreciated academic scope of ambition, he didn’t like its stodgy rules.  

You could say that your mom and I are both trying to make extraordinary things through using a vocabulary rooted in the day-to-day vernacular. That is where Lepage is influential. That and in the surprise of the Joan of Arc painting, where you encounter so many extra things that you didn’t expect to find there.

And here’s my mom’s response:

One of the cool things about the experience of Joan of Arc is that it was located somewhere in the European painting section upstairs, but I was never exactly sure where it was. That area was very big (it was differently arranged back then), and the rooms were always so similar looking and you could just go around and wander and get lost in the images. So when I went, it was like taking a walk in the woods, just an enjoyable stroll, and then it would appear, as if I discovered it anew all over again.

I love that Joan’s revelation is depicted as taking place in a garden. For me there is always a sense of communion in my garden, a feeling of so much life energy and spirit, like I am not alone out there, and like so much is possible.

I think that sense of possibility is something that I see captured in Helen Gray Cone’s poem. She talks of this moment that Joan is in, where once life was soft, gray skies with fluffy shapes of flowers etc. and she is a girl, and then those days are gone. Her experiences with others’ fears and pain move her to imagine change, to dream of something better. It makes sense that it was a woman who wrote the poem, that she could put herself in Joan of Arc’s position and emotions wrapped up in this decision—the hurt heart, the yearning of the mother that shall never be, love’s fine voice she’ll never hear—these are women’s choices, ones we make in our everyday battles.

I’d been thinking of Joan’s vision, in which “the cold death that hovered seemed her own,” as a kind of death—not only the loss of her childhood, but the loss of choice and chance, the revelation of a destiny that could no longer be avoided. And so it meant a lot to me to see my parents bring up possibility and discovery in their reading of the painting. I’m still learning, after all, what it means to be an adult, to have a purpose and a future, to see “the well-known ways” with different eyes. Maybe Joan’s vision is less a loss than a coming of age—not death, but the discovery of life to come.