Anne Gérard-Austin on Luke Fildes

Part of a series of new perspectives on portraiture commissioned for Archie Plus

Luke Fildes

The widower

oil on canvas
Purchased 1883

A burly widower clutches his sick child. The child’s head, caught in the light, has fallen back limply in near death. The chubby younger children play on, unaware, while the older daughter looks miserably at them – she knows, of course.

In its day, The widower was praised and condemned for its powerful depiction of the poverty-stricken working class. ‘[It] is a great pity’, wrote one unhappy commentator, ‘that painters do not bear more in mind the fact that their pictures are meant to adorn English living-rooms.’

But Fildes’ decision to expose the plight of the poor continues to resonate today. It confronts us – viewers, thinkers, voters – with social injustices that are all too relevant. So many people, here and elsewhere, still struggle to access proper healthcare, put food on the table and create better futures for their children.

Until better times, I want to gently put my hands on this father’s shoulders and whisper to him, ‘It will be okay …’

Anne Gérard-Austin, assistant curator, international art

View this work and more as part of the Gallery’s collection online