Living for decades at the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens in Jacksonville, Florida, Return from the Harvest by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) fuses classicism with the otherworldly, the formal with the symbolic. In the large-scale 19th-century painting, an infant and what appears to be his mother are riding a donkey, as young women and a young boy dance around them, joyous at the heralding of a child king, if not conqueror.
Located in the Charvot Gallery, Harvest dominates the space with its mesmerizing, portal-like effect and commanding presence. While the gallery features many impressive pieces, Bouguereau’s painting casts an immediate spell on visitors.
I first fell under the painting’s weird and well-rendered magic circa 1981, as a nine-year-old on his first visit to the Cummer during a school field trip. The teachers and chaperones were given the unenviable task of corralling 90 or so kids for a few hours, many of whom were sliding around on the museum’s polished, wooden floors. The docents cringed as a kid in a Star Wars hoodie pulled a near miss, running around a display case protecting 17th-century porcelain. As a child already convinced that I was doomed to break everything within arm’s length, I moved more slowly, both intimidated by and in awe of the Cummer’s atmosphere of art, quietness, and elegance, not to mention its oldness. At that time, I had only stepped into a church three times in my life, those experiences memorable only for their overall lack of impressiveness. Yet here at the Cummer, I was fully within the sacrosanct and the mystical.
Nearly 40 years later, Return from the Harvest still resonates. Its allusions to both Bacchus and Christ have been much discussed and the parallels are evident. Sitting atop a donkey, the child holds high a branch of grape leaves, wearing a crown of the same. The God of the Vine, Bacchus, also signifies, among other things, winemaking, the harvest, religious ecstasy—even madness born from ritual. Yet this infant returning to the village seems contemplative, even beatific, rather than triumphant. The arrival appears to be a blessing; a beam of light streams down from the upper-left-hand corner of the canvas, cutting through darkened trees and pushing away a gray mist. Cradling the child is ostensibly his mother, Mother Mary, whose expression is as tender as it is distracted or concerned.
The children surrounding them are downright ecstatic; one girl looks up with admiration as she leads the donkey with a rope. On the left, a second girl plays a large tambourine and a boy dances, his back to the audience, arms held aloft and legs crossed, as if frozen in time. Bouguereau cleverly uses the dark-colored clothes of the trio as a backdrop for the pale-skinned naked child, drawing the eye to this central point.
Remarkably, for all of its precision and layering of colors, Return from the Harvest was never completed. Bouguereau’s patron, the American millionaire Alexander T. Stewart, died while it was in progress. With his passing, the commission and funds also ended. As an instructor at the École des beaux-arts—the state-sponsored art academy in Paris—William-Adolphe Bouguereau taught his students in a classicist, academic style, favoring depictions of mythological and biblical stories, populated with stylized figures rendered in precise color layers. Knee-deep in the classicist style, Bouguereau loathed the burgeoning presence of the avant-garde in art, in particular the Impressionists. That same group, who were creating groundbreaking works that toggled representation of still life painting, color, and composition, hated the old guard and Bouguereau in kind.
For more than a century, many art scholars have viewed Bouguereau as a kind of relic of the academy, exemplifying the type of visual art that is anti-progressive, passé and avoided altogether. For all of his trumpeting of academic training and parochial formalism — and elitism — Bouguereau seems like he may have been a closet romantic when it came to the creation of art:
“One is born an artist. The artist is a man endowed with a special nature, with a particular feeling for seeing form and color spontaneously, as a whole, in perfect harmony. If one lacks that feeling, one is not an artist and will never become an artist; and it is a waste of time to entertain the possibility.”
At the time, my awareness of Greek and Roman mythology was still tethered to after-school cartoons, while my conception of Christ was forged either through seeing his dead body nailed to a lower case letter “t” or depicted as the impossibly serene Lord who inexplicably herded both sheep and smiling children. Seeing Bouguereau’s fusing of paganistic, Greco-Roman signifiers with an obvious nod to both Mary and Christ triggered something in me. I was surely equally shocked that a painting — old albeit beautiful — could entrance me for so long. Return from the Harvest is arguably the first work of visual art that I not only “saw” but also shared actual proximate space with.
While my family wasn’t religious, the painting gave me an appreciation of — and fascination with — the religiosity of much of the art that I’d later see. I blame Bouguereau for firing up the arc light that led me to artists like Francis Bacon and Hermann Nitsch, two true radicals who also knew the infinite wellspring of exploring the ineffable planes of art.
As that field trip ended, we kids formed an impromptu cash mob at the gift shop, barreling in to buy up cheap key chains, “art” candies, and pens, then storming back onto the waiting yellow school bus. Nearly 40 years later and I still go to the Cummer, heading first to the Charvot Gallery to see an old friend who always delivers a poignant, charged moment, no matter my age—reminding me of who I was and who I have become through a love of visual art.
Daniel A. Brown is a musician, writer, and editor living in Jacksonville, Florida. A onetime bassist for Royal Trux and ’68 Comeback, Brown is the former twice-arts and entertainment editor for Folio Weekly. Brown has written for DownBeat Magazine, Cartwheel Art, Aesthetica and American Airline’s American Way Magazine. In addition, Brown maintains an arts site called Starehouse (starehouse.com), which profiles Northeast Florida, national and international artists. He is currently the bassist in the band One-Eleven Heavy.