This is the painting for July on my calendar: Corot, The Reader Wreathed With Flowers (Virgil's Muse). A realist portrait of a mythical subject: how tenderly it is painted. Can one imagine going outside to read a bit, wearing a delicate circlet of ivy on one's heid? well no, but why couldn't we? Why couldn't we wrap our brows with cool leaves? a garden crown.
Virgil wrote Aeneid (29-19BC), a bloody legend about Aeneas's travelling wars from Troy in what is now Turkey, to found Rome by way of Carthage, just outside what is now Tunis. It starts with an invocation to the Muse:
I sing of arms and the man, he who, exiled by fate,
first came from the coast of Troy to Italy, and to
Lavinian shores – hurled about endlessly by land and sea,
by the will of the gods, by cruel Juno’s remorseless anger,
long suffering also in war, until he founded a city
and brought his gods to Latium: from that the Latin people
came, the lords of Alba Longa, the walls of noble Rome.
Muse, tell me the cause: how was she offended in her divinity,
how was she grieved, the Queen of Heaven, to drive a man,
noted for virtue, to endure such dangers, to face so many
trials? Can there be such anger in the minds of the gods?
ah. It was Juno's fault. We mortals are simply blown hither and thither by a quarrelling pantheon.
The 1840s: Nash was building in London, Ingres painting in Paris, the Irish famine occurred and Charlotte Bronte published Jane Eyre. Georgian elegance and French empire neoclassicism were about to be pushed aside by a rough gothic realism. Corot is sited between neoclassicism (mythological landscapes and gods) and impressionism (actual landscapes and people drawn from real life). Virgil's muse is a rhetorical figure, but the painting of her is of a very real, serene woman, her foot firmly places on the earth, her broad forehead wreathed in ivy. In the language of flowers, a Victorian conceit, ivy indicated both endurance and fidelity – there is something about Corot's muse that is as solid and as still as a rock.