A Place at the Table

At the art museum where I lead tours, I like to gather students in front of Supper, the larger-than-life oil painting by Joseph Hirsch.

“What’s unusual in this painting?” I ask.

Hirsch_Supper_pg

And the answer comes easily. The people seem poor, but the table seems rich.

“How can you tell the people are poor?” I ask. And they point out the tattered jackets, the scuffed shoes, and the desperate shoveling in of food. Some students mention bad manners, like elbows on the table.

About the rich table, they notice the wine in the goblets, the crisp table cloth, claw feet on the table, velvet on the chairs, and the chandelier overhead.

“What if I told you,” I ask students, “that Hirsch painted Supper at the same time President Johnson declared his War on Poverty? And during the Civil Rights Movement?

Most students can put it together. Everyone belongs at the table, they tell me.

Occasionally, I see a student counting and then the realization dawning. Twelve people are at the table, they say, like in The Last Supper painting.

We notice some techniques Hirsch uses—the dark, rough brushstrokes on the men and the lighter and finer brushing of the table and food, the way Hirsch pulls the eye from one pop of red to another—the velvet, a sauce, and the wine. Hirsch uses this rich color for emphasis.

And we end with a discussion on theme. How can you invite people to the table, I ask them. Most often, their minds go to literal tables—in their school cafeterias.

“We see kids sitting alone at school,” they say. “We could invite them to sit with us.”

If those moments in front of Supper make this one thing happen, our stop there is valuable. My hope, though, is that their understandings of table will broaden.

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