I have been going to the Philadelphia Museum of Art my entire life. I have seen the collection change time after time, and with the exception of a few paintings, my interest has shifted as well. Among the collection of more modern European work is a piece by Leon Frederic, entitled “The source of Life”. I cannot remember the first time I noticed this painting, and it stands out as something that is sort of unforgettable, a work that burns itself into your brain like staring at the sun too long. But do not be mistaken, the sun is brilliant, this piece is simply frightening. The seemingly endless parade of naked children, smiling and holding hands in a Garden of Eden landscape is characteristicly charming, and yet truthfully sickening. The expressions of the children seem false, with doe eyes that mimic dolls and complexions reminiscent of Renoir’s nude women, who also make me sick. The scenery matches the children, and a perfect creek tumbles through rocks as lush greenery seems to both hide and devour the innocent specimen Frederic lays out. The painting itself shares a wall with Grimshaw’s “Liverpool Docks” and a beautifully rendered piece depicting people having a fire. In contrast, the other two works are considerably smaller and darker. Their subject matter feels more grave, and though somewhat idealistic in composition, they do not have the superficial quality that makes Frederic’s work so striking. It is almost hard to see the other two paintings with “The Source” invading your eyes with florescent pastels and behemoth surface area. Perhaps that is why, regardless of what I choose to observe on my visits to the PMA, I am always drawn back to “The Source of Life”, it is irresistibly disturbed, the obnoxious child you find so charismatic.
Frederic’s work seems to follow the trend of overly joyous cherubs, nestled in idealistic scenery. Among his work on display at the PMA is s series called the “The four Seasons”. These four paintings, as the title leads one to expect, depict the seasons. Today, his work could most easily be defined as trite. Nothing is questioned or brought to light, the emotional voyage of his work is from sweet to pure sugar, a spoonful of corn syrup. I am hopeful, though not confident, that in the late 19th century, early 20th century, his work was more insightful than it appears today. But in the era of impressionists, cubists, surrealism and many other notable movements, why Frederic chose to paint children engulfed in flowers is beyond me.
That being said, I love “The source of Life”. It is in so many ways awful, and flat out dumb. But in it’s terrible aesthetic is manages to have such an intense conversation with every person who wanders into it’s room. For children, the work hits a little to close to home, for those a bit older, the piece starts to become humorous, and for most people I imagine the reaction a mix of confusion and displeasure. But that is the wonderful thing, few paintings so thoughtless can grab a reaction so strong. Of the hundreds of paintings in the museum that depict flowery scenes of nude innocence and perfection, most will be forgotten except by a handful of the obsessed. “The Source” however, will remain a point of conversation for days after a visit, a painting always noted in discussion as the piece people don’t understand. And whats so wonderful, is there isn’t anything to understand, it is just a bunch of naked kids playing in a stream. A commentary on politics, a metaphor perhaps? Perhaps. But if it is a metaphor it digs no deeper than the title, so don’t ponder “The Source of Life”, enjoy the fact that Leon Frederic spent hours, days, weeks even painting something that we can only assume he found a powerful conviction of what we really are. And yet, decades later his work feels hollow, a terrifying hallmark meets child pornography idea of the world. I take back that the piece isn’t brilliant, because whether he intended it to be or not, “The Source of Life” has become a work so against our notion of tasteful, that it is brilliant.