Painted in 2008, In God We Trust (Paying the Ferry Man) signified Marlene Dumas' celebrated return to painting following the death of her mother in September 2007 and was featured among the works on the cover of the catalogue for Magnetic Fields, Museum Kunst Palast, Dusseldorf, 2008-2009. For the 2008 exhibition For Whom the Bell Tolls, at Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp, where this work debuted, Dumas created a series of crying women as a proxy for herself, with another work For Whom the Bell Tolls, now in the collection of the Dallas Museum of Art. Undeniably rooted in her own autobiography, for these works Dumas developed a unique, cathartic painting process of pouring water over the oil paint to create the effect that the paintings themselves are weeping. The result is a distinctively fluid and expressive use of paint, where the silvery and violet tones augment the emotive qualities of her imagery. Dumas's element of skin colour acquires great significance, and the flesh achieves high importance. 'Liberty' is written around the coins, which, along with the painting's title, alludes to the American dream, while the title also suggests the importance of spiritual belief in times of mourning.
Interspersing images of mythological figures with those of Dora Maar, Ingrid Bergman and Marilyn Monroe, these works continue Dumas' broader inquiry into the equivocality of depicting femininity. Reworking iconic film stills, Dumas' depictions of iconic women are exemplary of Dumas' use of the lone female figure to address questions of identity. Embodying both daughter and mother, In God We Trust (Paying the Ferry Man) the tears symbolise the artist's grief, while the silvery coins concealing her eyes suggest her mother's passing, referencing the ancient Greek myth of Charon's obol: the tradition of placing an obolus (coin) on the eyes or mouth of the deceased as payment to Charon, ferryman of the dead for safe passageway for their souls across the Styx and Acheron into the Underworld. Translating this history into her lyrical use of paint, In God We Trust (Paying the Ferry Man) engages in a dialogue with Dumas' predecessors in the history of figurative painting (like Théodore Gericault, Hans Holbein, and Egon Schiele). We can see the artist's brushstrokes in the layering of pigment, and the soft interweaving of facial elements, which creates a painterly rendition that reveals and at times conceals the figure. First delineating the features in oil paint, Dumas distorts chromatic and tactile variations, striking a visual relationship between the surface of the skin and that of the painting by pouring water over the oil paint. The sinuous beads and streaks of translucent colour lend the portrait and its physical and physiognomic plasticity an unreal, immaterial transparency, to evoke the poignant act of weeping.