This morning, we signed onto Twitter to find our friends discussing one of the most beloved works in the Clark’s permanent collection: William Bouguereau’s Nymphs and Satyr. We’re always happy to share what we know—and what we think!—about this monumental work. Check back throughout the day as our staff and our visitors add their voices to this page:
Paul Richardson, Assistant Exhibitions Manager: I have a love-hate relationship with Bouguereau in general. Nineteenth-century academic style and content is not really to my taste but these masters surely could draw and paint! As concerns Nymphs and Satyr, I really love the back story that it once hung in a hotel bar in New York City where it inspired cigar-box labels, plates and urns. It is also interesting that it is the one over-sized picture that Sterling Clark purchased and it provides a dramatic comparison to the more intimately scaled paintings that the Clarks otherwise collected. Enjoy.
Michael Cassin, Director, Center for Education in the Visual Arts: Nymphs and Satyr is the largest painting in the Clark’s collection; Mr. and Mrs. Clark usually bought works that were more domestic in scale. In particular, they admired the work of the Impressionists, so it’s interesting that they also acquired this large-scale painting of a Classical subject, made in 1873, the year before the first Impressionist exhibition, which is about as unlike an Impressionist painting as you could imagine. The Bouguereau is hanging currently in a gallery in which a number of paintings by Monet are also displayed, so visitors have a perfect opportunity to see the differences between these two types of nineteenth-century French paintings for themselves.
Monica Henry, Education Coordinator: The action in this work centers around a struggle between the nymphs and the satyr at the water’s edge (satyrs can’t swim, and the nymphs, who have had enough of this satyr, know that). The scene is so idealized that despite this struggle, there are no splashes, and all of the nymphs stay clean as a whistle (no mud!).
Mary Leitch, Manager of Visitor Services: It is amazing how many visitors associate Nymphs and Satyr with their first art museum experience. We often hear they visited the Clark as a child or with a school group and they were fascinated with this painting. Timothy Cahill wrote a great piece about this work for the 2002 Clark Journal entitled, “The Naughty Painting.” If you visit the Clark, borrow the information desk’s copy of the journal and enjoy this article!
Shane Chick, Clark Visitor: I have always loved Bouguereau’s Nymphs and Satyr; it is the first painting I can remember. I grew up on the opposite side of the golf course near the Clark Art Institute, and I would walk there by myself on weekends and afternoons and during holidays and vacations. The Clark always seemed like my own little artistic getaway, in fact the Clark and Bouguereau’s Nymphs and Satyr were the one of the reasons I became an artist. Every time I would walk into the Clark as a child I was struck by the size of the painting (and I am still in awe of the scale). I would stand there and try to imagine what happened next. This painting was something to look forward to, and still is. Thank you to Mr. and Mrs. Clark for gathering all the artwork for my own personal early art history education. (P.S. This was during the 70′s and 80′s and my hippie father did and still does look just like the Satyr.)
David Keiser-Clark, Web Developer: There’s so much detail in this painting, it makes for easy eye-gazing. Here’s what intrigues me: The nymphs’ turquoise and red hair ribbons are incredibly vibrant, yet I’ve never noticed them before. For all of the satyr’s ruggedness, his right ear appears velvety soft, and vulnerable; and his face, when magnified, appears clearly anguished. And while the nymphs, satyr, tree leaves, grass and water plants are all done in a stunning photo-realistic style, it bothers me that those little red flowers (lower-left) and yellow lily-pad flowers (lower-right) look, well, painted, and un-real. Why’d he do that?
Michael Cassin, Director, Center for Education in the Visual Arts: Hi David, I’m not sure I can answer your question definitively (what looks “unreal” to one person might look fine to someone else), but… I think it’s likely that certain parts of the painting would have looked rather different when it was painted 130+ years ago (paintings “age” just like human beings). The reeds that appear in the bottom left-hand corner of the canvas suggest another connection that may or may not be relevant to the painting’s theme. One of the mythological stories told about Pan and his “passions” involved a nymph called Syrinx, who—to escape his attentions—cried out for help from the gods and was transformed into a clump of water reeds. The noise made by the wind as it passed through the reeds gave Pan the idea of cutting some of them down and stringing them together to make his famous set of pipes (the musical instrument known as the “pan-pipes” is also known as a “syrinx”).
Terri Boccia, Acquisitions Librarian and Special Projects Officer: I have always loved the playfulness of Nymphs and Satyr. The brilliant composition not only keeps the eye moving around the painting, it also conveys the push-and-pull going on as the frisky nymphs try to get their reluctant satyr into the water. Notice how the feet nicely fall on a perfect diagonal leading from the lower right up into the scene. You can almost feel the twisting of the highly lit back of the foremost nymph as she tugs on the satyr. The nymph with her arm raised looks like she is signaling to friends to come join the fun. The ladies certainly look like they are having a good time.
Sarah Lees, Associate Curator of European Art: While Nymphs and Satyr is certainly a fun, appealing, crowd-pleasing painting, I also find it somewhat maddening, in a way. Think of the realist artist Gustave Courbet, who was Bouguereau’s contemporary (actually, Courbet was a few years older) but who painted in a style radically opposed to his. Courbet, who depicted workers, ordinary people, and rough, unpicturesque landscapes, supposedly said: “Show me an angel and I’ll paint one.” Well Bouguereau obviously never saw a satyr (though he probably had a model or two in his studio who looked something like a nymph), but he painted one so convincingly, in such detail and with a perfect, glassy, photograph-like surface, that I actually have to work hard to remember that this is a mythical creature! Of course I don’t mind being “fooled” by such a skilled artist, but then again…
Glenn D. Lowry, Director of the Museum of Modern Art, discusses the influence of Nymphs and Satyr here.
Lauren Puzier, Former Clark Library Intern: How elegantly Bouguereau depicts a struggle between a single satyr against four agile nymphs! Passing by this work in the museum I see a playful and lighthearted painting with figures fooling around near the ponds edge. The composition is so fun as far as movement and soft curves (not to mention the Arcadian background!) But just looking at the way these nymphs tug, pull and push quickly becomes more shocking than playful. I find myself stuck looking at the satyrs’ head. Nymph #3 (facing us with a turquoise hair ribbon) quite violently wraps her fingers around his neck, nearly digging them in. Meanwhile, Nymph #1 and #2 push and hang off of his head. As he struggles to stay on land his hooves slip on the soft muddy ground. It is no wonder he does not look overjoyed by the pretty attention!
Sally Morse Majewski, Manager of Public Relations and Marketing: In 2006 Nymphs and Satyr were special witnesses to a marriage proposal at the Clark. The enterprising groom contact the Clark in advance and we helped out with the arrangements including flowers, and a photographer who snapped the special moment. Good news is – she said yes!
Peter Unique, Clark visitor, asks: The details are exceptional! Did Bouguereau have any models?
Michael Cassin, Director, Center for Education in the Visual Arts, responds: Hi Peter. Like most academically trained artists in France at the time, Bouguereau made many preparatory studies from life, using models posed in different positions, adjusting their poses to fit the figures together in the kind of rhythmical composition we can see in his painting of Nymphs and Satyr. In fact, we have a figure drawing of a female nude in the Clark’s works on paper collection. The drawing isn’t a study for our painting but it gives some idea of his working method.