Read or Listen!
Just push the "play" button below to listen to my "reading"!
A young woman is leaning over a sleeping young man pointing something at his head.
What is she pointing at his head? Is she poking him? Is she drawing on his forehead?
She holds the implement carefully in her hand with her thumb and forefinger, like you would a pencil. So she may be drawing on his face, but taking a closer look, the point of the stylus is touching the wall, not his head.
In fact, the tip seems to be right on the edge of the shadow of his profile on the wall. (Why is she drawing on the wall?) Her left hand is raised to ensure precision, and maybe to balance herself. Though she’s very close, she’s not touching him. She seems to be wary of waking him up. Who is he? Why does she want to draw his outline? ...while he sleeps?
She, and the young man are both wearing robes (similarly colored, too) suggesting that the scene is set in Ancient Greece or Rome. The setting is a very brown, sparsely furnished, but warm-feeling room. Nothing on the walls, a couple of brown pots on the floor (one overturned) and then in the back-room, what looks like a fire or red stained glass.
But taking a closer look, that little arched window is part of a large bee-hive shape—it’s a kiln, and on a side shelf there are more large pots. This looks like a potter’s shop. She is an artist! Figure drawing on vases was ubiquitous in Ancient Greek pottery.
She’s an artist, but this isn’t a typical model’s session. He’s posing and doesn’t know it, and her surface area is a little unconventional. She seems, with her slight smile, to be enjoying this moment of secretly admiring him. He’s handsome, and looks about her age… could he be her lover?
Not only does this not seem like a typical model's session, but he also looks like he might be leaving when he wakes. He’s got his clothes on (while he naps), his spear, and his dog (asleep, like him). Perhaps he’s just passing through… could he be going somewhere in the morning? Perhaps that’s why she’s drawing on the wall—she doesn’t have time to ask him to pose tomorrow… he may be gone... and with a spear beside him, he may not be going someplace safe.
Not only is the girl taking great pains to precisely render his figure, but it looks like she’s deliberately set up the lighting as well. While her shadow is blurry, his is clear and distinct, precisely rendering his facial outline. The edge of the lamp is visible behind the curtain and seems to be ideally placed to create the profile shadow. It looks like she waited till he fell asleep, quietly (with bare feet) set up the lamp, and proceeded to carefully start tracing his outline on the wall--a secret act of adoration that cannot wait…
Background: The young girl is indeed going to say goodbye to her lover. He is off for a perilous journey. And knowing this, knowing that she will not see her lover for a very long time, she takes action: she spends the night intimately studying and enjoying his beauty while preserving for herself his likeness. Though he will be gone the next day, she will preserve his memory.
The painting is called The Corinthian Maid. It illustrates a scene from an apocryphal story of the invention of low-relief sculpture decoration on vases. The young woman’s father would take the outline she drew of her beloved and create the first decoration of that kind.
When I think of this image, I’m reminded that when I know I’m going to part with someone dear to me, I want to enjoy them and to preserve a memory of them.
When have you taken action to create a memory for a departing loved-one?
Whose profile would you secretly draw the night before they were to leave?
The Corinthian Maid, Joseph Wright of Derby. National Gallery, Washington, D.C.