Nymphs and Satyr (Nymphes et Satires) (1873) - William-Adolphe Bouguereau; oil on canvas.
This is one of my mum’s favourite paintings. She always used to say, when I was little, that she loved it because the women seemed so real, so curvy and in control, unashamed, powerful, and proud of their bodies. She took me to an art museum in Massachusetts, several times throughout my childhood, where I’d walk through the cold glass doors and neutral hallway into a massive room with deep crimson walls. The nymphs would be hanging there on the wall, a huge painting, several feet tall, the largest of the collection. I stood before it, a tiny girl, impressionable and naive and new to the world, dwarfed by this immense, vibrant canvas, absolutely alive and dancing in front of my eyes, and I was swept away by the beauty. I didn’t entirely understand it, but I felt it in every inch of my body. This is the power of art.
Some days, when I’m not feeling too good about my body, when I look in the mirror and see nothing but flaws and things to be changed, and feel my strength crumbling away until I’m too weak to stand… I try to remind myself of these nymphs, of the crimson room, the dancing paint and singing canvas. I twist my body, raising my arms, mimicking their oh-so-lifelike movements, and sometimes I can see myself with them, just as strong, just as in control, just as beautiful. This is the power of art.
I can’t wait to stand in front of it again, 10, 12, 13 years older now; a very different person from that little girl, someone who is now wise to the world, weary, marked and beaten by life like a hammered piece of silver. One day, I’ll stand in front of it again, the crimson walls enclosing me like a womb. Maybe I still won’t entirely understand it. Maybe I’ll stand beside another little girl, who is seeing it for the first time. I’ll smile at her and begin to sway my arms. I’ll twist and twirl my body and we’ll dance - other people’s bemused gazes be damned! I’ll be alive again, this oiled power runs in my veins, in her veins. It will always be a reminder that we are strong, powerful, beautiful just as we are. This is the power of art.