In 1959, Martin Luther King Jr would open a sermon with these words about shattered dreams, “Our sermon today brings us face to face with one of the most agonizing problems of human experience. Very few, if any, of us are able to see all of our hopes fulfilled. So many of the hopes and promises of our mortal days are unrealized. Each of us, like Shubert, begins composing a symphony that is never finished. There is much truth in George Frederick Watts’ imaginative portrayal of Hope in his picture entitled Hope. He depicts Hope as seated atop our planet, but her head is sadly bowed and her fingers are plucking one unbroken harp string. Who has not had to face the agony of blasted hopes and shattered dreams’?”
English painter George Frederick Watts (1817-1904) would paint the first of several versions of Hope in 1885. Its symbolism would prove very popular and over time it would be massively reproduced. I read that by the 1930s however his work fell out of fashion and major galleries like The Tate removed his work from permanent display. So I do wonder when, where and how Martin Luther King first saw Hope. I do know when a young Barack Obama learned of the painting. It was in 1990. Pastor Jeremiah Wright would deliver a sermon, The Audacity to Hope. Wright’s words would move the young student who would eventually rouse a whole nation (mostly) with a notion that he would call, The Audacity of Hope.
So where is hope these days? In part its a personal question that we each have to grapple with on any given day depending on what’s happening in our lives.
Watts and later his friend Edward Burne-Jones each painted variations of Hope during dark periods in their lives. For Watts that period included the death of his adopted daughter’s child. Burne-Jones had been commissioned by a wealthy American to paint a dancing figure but as he dealt with the death of his friend and colleague William Morris he asked if instead he might paint Hope. I think of hope as something you hold on to or reach out for. And sometimes it even settles around you like a warm blanket when you least expect it. Or, as Emily Dickinson wrote,
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