Bill Murray Explains How a 19th-Century Painting Saved His Life

You don’t under­stand pre­war 20th-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca unless you under­stand a par­tic­u­lar 19th-cen­tu­ry French paint­ing: Jules Bre­ton’s The Song of the Lark. “In this evoca­tive work, a young peas­ant woman stands silent­ly in the flat fields of the artist’s native Nor­mandy as the sun ris­es, lis­ten­ing to the song of a dis­tant lark,” says a post from the Art Insti­tute of Chica­go. Apart from being select­ed as Amer­i­ca’s favorite paint­ing in 1934, it was also Eleanor Roo­sevelt’s favorite work of art, it pro­vid­ed the title for Willa Cather’s third nov­el, and it “inspired Bill Mur­ray while he was strug­gling as an actor in Chica­go.”

In the video above, a clip from a press con­fer­ence on the Mur­ray-fea­tur­ing his­tor­i­cal art-heist film The Mon­u­ments Men, he tells the sto­ry of how The Song of the Lark saved him. “This may be a lit­tle bit not-com­plete­ly-true,” Mur­ray says, “but it’s pret­ty true.”

When he first start­ed act­ing on the stage in his home­town of Chica­go, he did­n’t quite have the skills that have made him such a com­pelling pres­ence for more than forty years on the screen. After what sounds like one par­tic­u­lar­ly poor ear­ly per­for­mance — poor enough to make him con­sid­er his life prac­ti­cal­ly over — he took a despair­ing walk toward Lake Michi­gan, think­ing, “If I’m going to die where I am, I may as well go over to the lake and float for a while after I’m dead.”

But then a sud­den, impul­sive turn up Michi­gan Avenue took Mur­ray to the Art Insti­tute of Chica­go, and there he found him­self in front of The Song of the Lark, which has now hung there for over a cen­tu­ryThe sight of it got him think­ing: “ ‘Well, there’s a girl who does­n’t have a whole lot of prospects, but the sun’s com­ing up any­way and she’s got anoth­er chance at it.’ So I think that gave me some sort of feel­ing that I, too, am a per­son, and I get anoth­er chance every day the sun comes up.” Many of the Great Depres­sion-era Amer­i­cans who admired Bre­ton’s paint­ing must have drawn sim­i­lar feel­ings from it, just as sure­ly as many of Mur­ray’s fans have found inspi­ra­tion in all his char­ac­ters, art­ful­ly craft­ed between the comedic and the dra­mat­ic — char­ac­ters that, with­out The Song of the Lark, he may nev­er have lived to per­form.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Art Insti­tute of Chica­go Puts 44,000+ Works of Art Online: View Them in High Res­o­lu­tion

Bill Mur­ray Explains How He Pulled Him­self Out of a Deep, Last­ing Funk: He Took Hunter S. Thompson’s Advice & Lis­tened to the Music of John Prine

The Phi­los­o­phy of Bill Mur­ray: The Intel­lec­tu­al Foun­da­tions of His Comedic Per­sona

Bill Mur­ray Reads the Poet­ry of Lawrence Fer­linghet­ti, Wal­lace Stevens, Emi­ly Dick­in­son, Bil­ly Collins, Lorine Niedeck­er, Lucille Clifton & More

Lis­ten to Bill Mur­ray Lead a Guid­ed Medi­a­tion on How It Feels to Be Bill Mur­ray

Art Exhib­it on Bill Mur­ray Opens in the UK

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Alex says:

    Hel­lo, Jules Bre­ton was­n’t born in Nor­mandy, but in Cour­rières, a small town between Arras and Lille in the north of France . This paint­ing cer­tain­ly rep­re­sents a field locat­ed in this area…

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