The Lord is My Shepherd
Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from a 1994 exhibition catalogue by Dr. David Morgan, Department of Art, Valparaiso University. Used with permission. Sallman images copyrighted by Warner Press, Inc. Used with permission.
A favorite image to place in the bedroom and Sunday School classroom, The Lord is My Shepherd visualizes the pastoral image of Psalm 23, but does so without the dark side of the ancient verse. Indeed, this may account for the appeal of Sallman’s rendition: there is not a hint of the “valley of the shadow of death” here, only a tranquil vision of “still waters” and “green pastures.” The message was one of comfort with no reference to the threats to which the Psalmist alluded. The small, plump sheep inhabit a utopian garden landscape that is nothing if not peaceable. Christ is as gentle as his flock, with whom he is identified by the color and softness of his robe. Located at the heart of the quiet flock, Christ emanates an emollient aura and dotes upon the lamb, symbol of his concern for children. Even the “little black sheep” follows his lead. According to promotional literature, this animal “is a symbol of the wayward sheep who have been restored again to the fold.”
While Sallman’s imagery is often dismissed for its sentimentality, it is clear in details such as this and in the overall composition of The Lord is My Shepherdthat he was able to create pictures that convey very effectively the sentiment that mattered to his appreciative public. In this painting, for instance, Christ and his flock are nestled in a brightly painted landscape that wraps about them; framed by the diagonal creek in the lower left, the sheep are surrounded by the hatched movement of the verdure and the diagonal shore of the river to the upper right. The tree in the upper left echoes Christ’s gesture and helps construct a balanced and centered composition that conveys the serenity which Sallman and his audience considered the ideal of the pious life. One mother, for whom the Head of Christ symbolized stability and peace during a childhood plagued by an alcoholic parent, displayed The Lord is My Shepherd in her bedroom. She referred to Christ “holding the lamb with the mother sheep looking on with concern” and drew great relief from the relationship between savior, lamb, and the ewe as she thought about her own children: “What solace to know who held them (her children) as they began to go out on their own.”
Sallman found the idea for this painting in Bernhard Plockhorst’s 19th-century portrayal of the subject, which shows the mother sheep craning its head upward toward its lamb in Christ’s arms. Sallman elevated the viewer above the scene somewhat in order to introduce the colorful landscape. Yet in adjusting the perspective of the landscape and sheep, he did not reduce the height of Christ who towers above the flock gathering about his knees. This characteristic diminution of subject matter may be an important element in the great appeal of Sallman’s work: by making the sheep doll-like, Sallman enhanced their dependence on the paternal savior and gave them a charm that corresponds to the cherubic cuteness of children in such images as He Careth For You.