Monday, April 02, 2007


I had this down as by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, but have been unable to locate it, for example, here.The date I have is 1885. In my own use in class, I don't really need the name of the artist--the unit is about looking (and, in this case, listening as well), not about academic or Romantic art. I would like to know who painted it, but I don't need to know that for what I say in class.
I tell students this is the sort of painting I grew up learning to disdain. It is too prettified, too composed, too er, prurient? perhaps, for my tastes. But not really. When I look at her (great topic--the pronouns we use to talk about art) I can't help but be interested in the quiet poise of her pose. Her model, I suppose, is the marvelous Crouching Aphrodite (The Venus of Vienna), or its marvelously cheap Hellenistic imitation. The subject here, though, is the sound of the sea, which she is listening to, inviting us to join her in its repose. Her hand, which is the most expressive part about her, is at once an invitation to listen and a reminder that this is as far as we get with her. She is a chaste nymph.
After this one, and a few more nudes, a young woman asked me why there were so many nudes. Well, there had been about 3, and I was taken a bit aback. I sat on the desk and talked about the Greek discovery of the nude, which we will get to in a couple of weeks, and its high-toned discovery in the Renaissance, when Neo-Platonist painters found in the Greek ideal of the nude body--both male and female--a way of expressing ideal beauty. Part of the discovery of the human body Greek sculptors made is their notion of the underlying proportions by which it may be expressed in bronze or marble. There is a connection, then, felt by both artist and audience, between the abstract world of geometry, where everything is always the case, and the mortal world of the human body, where things are always in flux. I told her we would be getting in to more of that later, but that essentially, this painting here saw itself--er, pronoun again, I should say the painter (whoever he was) saw it as--in imitation of the Greek and Renaissance ideal.
Be that as it may, that cunning puddle below her, reflecting her knees or shins, reminds us of the subject being represented, or, here, re-represented, to which we can not help but return.