It was easier to begin my 45-minute looking experience at William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s Homer and His Guide than it was at Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Street at Schöneberg City Park, the subject of my last “Slow Art” post. I have loved Bouguereau for about four years now, ever since I gave gallery talks on his work at the Frick Art & Historical Center in Pittsburgh, PA. Like Jean-Honoré Fragonard, he is not the most respectable artist for an art historian or museum educator to love: his work is sentimental, it doesn’t really push boundaries, and it is on the whole pretty safe. But I have always been drawn to the way he paints—his style is luminously realistic, ridiculously meticulous. He is one of the few painters whose figures always seem to me about to jump off the canvas.
So I thought this would be a pretty easy Slow Art choice. And it did begin really beautifully. I already knew the basic subject of the painting: Homer, the famous Greek poet, author of The Illiad and The Odyssey, who according to lore was also blind, is being guided by a shepherd on one of his journeys. This scene, I recalled dimly while sitting in front of the work, was right out of some legend or other the famous bard’s life (in case you’re curious, Bougereau based the scene on André Chénier’s poem about Bouguereau, called L’Aveugle or The Blind Man). You can read the French poem on the the French Wikisource—I suggest using Google Translation for a decent, though slightly nonsensical, English translation, if like me, you do not speak French!
Not wanting to care quite yet about the painting’s content, I let its monumental size take over. The angry dog barks in the foreground; the idealized shepherd boy, with his worried brow, steps forward with one of the most perfect feet in the entire Museum. Homer stands somehow separate from them, his stature taking over. I begin to drink in the textures: the rough, marble-like canvas of Homer’s tunic; the soft, plush fur at the neck of the dog that I want to run my fingers through; the crumpled, thin fabric of the shepherd’s clothing; the scratched, dusty ground at his feet; his curly mop of hair; Homer’s bristly beard; the velvety leaves of the trees and bushes around them. And their skin—that flesh, translucent and soft looking, as if blood is coursing through veins underneath paint.
There’s a point in these long looking experiences, I’ve noticed, when the going gets tough. It’s around 10 or 15 minutes in. I get fidgety, I get a little cranky, I want to give up. I’ve run through all the basics that I know about the piece (the bits of information about the artist I already know, the basic story behind the piece, the style and time period). I’m feeling like I’ve got the gist of things. But that’s the point when it’s really important to keep looking. I usually change my position to get a fresh perspective. Then things begin to open up a little more.
I start by getting closer, selfishly wanting to figure out how Bouguereau could possibly paint this way. I see thorns and berries in the bush on the left. I look closely at the intertwined hands of Homer and the shepherd boy, noticing how Homer’s hand is palm upwards. The bard’s fist tensely clenches around his walking stick, and I feel the pressure he places on it as he moves forward. I think of the power and influence Homer has and had, and yet how, because of his disability, he also must have needed to be dependent, vulnerable at times. It must have been difficult for this man, proud chin held high. Meanwhile, I am still struggling—getting closer hasn’t helped change my sudden moodiness with the painting.
So I straighten and take some big steps backwards, moving to the right to get rid of the glare from the gallery lighting. The colors immediately seem even richer, and then the composition clicks. The painting is divided into two halves. On the left, there is danger: wildly gesturing naked youths (other shepherds, oddly undressed in the fields?), more angry dogs, a thorny bush, and the huge barking dog in the foreground. On the right, there is safety—the hand of the helpful youth, a flowering tree, an empty basket, a pathway onwards.
Homer, tall, head held high, straddles the two. The lute on his back, tied with a bright orange sash, and the walking stick are Homer’s only accessories. The lute, instrument of the Greek poet, symbolizing creativity, his life’s work—it is comforting, a tool he knows well, but it is also dangerous, just like the act of creating art is a frightening thing. He must straddle danger and safety, I realize—isn’t that what creativity is all about? Giving oneself over to both the danger and the vulnerability of art, whether painting or poetry or music, is how meaningful works are created.
You can visit this painting in Gallery 10 on the Main Level. Are you equally as enthralled by Bouguereau’s painting style as I am, or do you find it a bit too sentimental? Do you agree about the statement I think the artist might be making about creativity? Share in the comments!
Chelsea Emelie Kelly was the Museum’s Manager of Digital Learning. In addition to working on educational technology initiatives like the Kohl’s Art Generation Lab and this blog, she oversaw and taught teen programs.