Family Fables: Albert Anker’s ‘Grandfather Telling a Story’

Light comments about interesting art

Family Fables: Albert Anker’s ‘Grandfather Telling a Story’
“Grandfather Telling a Story,” 1884, by Albert Anker. Oil on canvas. Museum of Fine Arts Bern. (Art Renewal Center)
Yvonne Marcotte

Four children sit around an elderly man, their grandfather, and listen attentively as he tells a story in Albert Anker’s painting, “Grandfather Telling a Story” (1884).

The setting for this painting is a rural Swiss homestead. Farming by peasants was the mainstay of the economy in most 19th-century European countries. Their farmsteads sustained them and provided for their needs. They grew their own food, made their own clothes, and made their own tools and implements as seen by the wheelbarrow in the foreground.

This is a three-generation family and they are not rich. Two of the children are barefoot. The oldest child on the right knits while listening. An elderly woman, perhaps the grandmother, on the children’s left could also be listening to Grandfather’s story as she shells beans or nuts in a basket. On the far left a woman, who might be the children’s mother, carries a pail feeding the chickens.

Family stories matter. As in most societies, a most pleasant pastime for children is listening to stories, especially stories from their elders. Grandkids Matter states that “… grandparents are natural storytellers, and [their] stories have a bigger purpose than simply entertaining the grandkids. Many of [their] stories can help [children] grow in discernment and will likely become part of the legacy … of family history and life-giving wisdom.”
Stories strengthen family ties. A child comes to love and respect the older storyteller. As the child grows, they get a better sense of their family history. These stories also reinforce family values and shape individual values. Children learn how to make good decisions. “Strong values that are passed down from generation to generation help build solid individuals who know who they are,” according to Adventures in Nanaland.
Family stories connect children to their family: how they look, how they act, how they talk. As a child grows, perhaps he or she will have an experience similar to one heard from Grandfather, or visit a place that Grandfather told them about in a story. Family stories continue a thread of history to ensure traditional values continue. Perhaps a phrase said in a story reminds a child how to get through hard times.  Adventures in Nanaland goes on to state: “There are studies that show that the more children know about their family, the better they do when faced with difficult decisions.”
Family stories help children to have a sense of belonging and help them feel secure in their place in the world. With a sense of who they are in the family, a child can then find their place in the broader community.

A Swiss Artist

Swiss artist Albrecht Anker (1831–1910) has been called the "national painter" of Switzerland because of his popular depictions of 19th-century Swiss rural life. While studying in Germany, he was introduced to great art and found his calling as an artist.
In her paper published in the Swiss Institute for Art Research, Therese Bhattacharya-Stettler states that Anker’s paintings “are executed with great skill, providing brilliance to everyday scenes through subtle choices in colouring and lighting.”

According to Bhattacharya-Stettler, Ankar said of his work: "One has to shape an idea in one's imagination, and then one has to make that idea accessible to the people." His painting of a simple Swiss family listening to Grandfather's wonderful story reaches families everywhere.