Frederick Arthur Bridgman – The Siesta (1878)

By the end of the 19th century the allure of the Orient and the “far away” was sweeping over Europe and North America. Following Napoleon’s 1798 – 1801 invasion of Egypt, other expeditions followed, drawn in particular towards the Middle East and North Africa. Scientists traveled alongside artists, in an attempt to decipher the exoticism of these mysterious lands. While some painters showed condescension towards their subjects, the overall feelings they conveyed were of fascination and awe.

And yet, were you to dare utter the word Orientalism, you’d very likely be met with scorn and air quotes. Because in the art world they only speak of “Orientalism”, a mocking reference to 19th century artists’ choice of Eastern subjects, depicted in luxurious settings. Often resorting to clichés and props, these highly saturated, realistic and rather sentimental artworks became an instant commercial hit, being widely reproduced.

With non-Western art often being ignored, the best thing we have is the Orient seen through the lens of the West. You can call it colonialism, imperialism or cultural appropriation … it doesn’t change the fact that it’s all we have in our Western collective conscience and our Eurocentric art books.

Frederick Arthur Bridgman - The Siesta
Frederick Arthur Bridgman – The Siesta (1878), oil on canvas

American artist Frederick Arthur Bridgman was one of the Orientalists who, after several trips to North Africa during the 1870s and 1880s, completed many paintings revealing the foreign cultures that fascinated him. I was immediately drawn to The Siesta, an oil painting that captures the peaceful slumber of a young woman amidst a luxurious, exotic setting. The soft pillows and bed on which she lies offer her delight and great comfort, as seen from the subtle smile on her face. There is so much pleasure implied, which isn’t surprising considering how relished and much needed a nap is sometimes.

But take a closer look and perhaps you’ll change your mind. There is a small table with tea or coffee next to the bed, against which leans a smoking pipe – perhaps one for opium. The girl’s siesta suddenly doesn’t look so innocent.  A small monkey is also perched on the cushions of the bed. Due to monkeys’ resemblance to humans, for the longest time, in art, they symbolized our most primal and sexual urges. In the background, the lush vegetation and the open door to the right suggest that the girl is vulnerable to danger and intrusion.

600px-Flaming_June,_by_Frederic_Lord_Leighton_(1830-1896)
Frederic Leighton – Flaming June (1895), oil on canvas

Unconsciousness and sexuality are interwoven, a motif that was used extensively throughout art history and reinforced by Sigmund Freud’s writings. Flaming June also comes to mind for how a peaceful sleep can be charged with so much desire.

In spite of all these scattered clues, I still prefer to look at this painting as an invitation to a pleasurable, almost decadent siesta. The detail in the furniture, tapestry and tiles is exquisite, as if Bridgman was bringing to life one of our childhood stories. Forget the danger, that’s where I want to rest.

13 thoughts on “Frederick Arthur Bridgman – The Siesta (1878)

  1. With your understanding of art and history it appears you are especially well equipped to aesthetically appreciate art. Thanks for your insight.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s such an exquisite painting I wouldn’t know what my favorite part is, but I am sure I’m partial to that giant leaf in the background. The way he captures the light coming through it as seen from the underside, and shinning on the back of the bent over parts is masterful. But then so is that sofa.

    That girl looks pretty young, but my guess would be she definitely smoked some of the opium and is in an opium dream.

    As an expat I marvel at what travel and living in another country was like before airplanes and modern conveniences. More intriguing is how different another culture was back then as compared to now, as the world becomes more uniform.

    As for the moralist/political projections on a painting like this, well, the word “stupid” comes to mind. The other day I read that the artist who was boycotted was influenced by John Gardner’s, “On Moral Fiction”. I read that in my “Contemporary Literature” class over 30 years ago, and we had to write an essay on it. I think I was the only one who savaged it. I went to the library and looked up what various philosophers had to say on the topic, and they weren’t having any of it. I can’t remember any of my or their arguments, but I think I’ve seen through moralizing and politicizing art ever since as really missing the point, or making a point that’s tangential to the real subject. And that has only gotten worse over time. “What do you think of this Chuck Close painting? I think he sexually harassed women and it should be taken down.”

    That said, insightful and intelligent political analysis that isn’t just going down the bullet point litmus test list can be relevant, but at this point in history I think it’s so distracting that one would be better off not knowing anything about politics or art history at all when looking at a painting. I can imagine looking at this with a child’s eyes, and how much richer an experience that would be than filtering it through foregone conclusions. Ends rant.

    Amazing painting. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Eric. It’s always a pleasure to read your insightful comments. To be fair, I wasn’t even sure this painting or style would be your cup of tea. We tend to associate Orientalism with cheap love book covers and kitsch. And if the mass reproductions weren’t enough, the quote marks (“Orientalism”) seem so dismissive of the style as a whole, that I don’t know how many people take it seriously.

      I haven’t read “On Moral Fiction”… the reason I said I thought Ligare and you overlapped in your thinking was because he’s sick of realism and he sees it as narcissism, a constant self-preoccupation. You were saying that you want to invent your own reality instead of depicting it. He, on the other hand, thinks we need ideals, however unattainable. So I can see why you two would differ on the solution, but you still see the same problem.

      When I was reading up about Orientalism I also stumbled upon commentary that viewed it through the lens of gender studies. That was very disappointing, to say the least. Even if these artists had a secret agenda and wanted women to be their sex slaves, I really doubt it was an explicit, articulated desire. So then it turns into psychoanalysis, as if the art historians knew what the Orientalists’ subconscious desired. You’re right, it’s far more rewarding to look at art with the eyes of a child, instead of getting lost in suppositions.

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      1. ” You were saying that you want to invent your own reality instead of depicting it.” Did I say that? It’s a little different. I think if you are an individual and you think for yourself and have your own perceptions, they will be a bit distinct and idiosyncratic, because everyone is looking out of a different window. In the case of Van Gogh, for instance, he created a new reality in that he managed to make his subjective experience into a visual artifact. So, it’s not inventing a new reality as an objective, but that a successful manifestation of someone’s subjective universe is going to appear different than quotidian reality. But this can be done in so many ways.

        I’m not against realism at all. Lately I’m more against morality. Science is realistic, trying to uncover truths (such as that the Earth revolves around the sun, and not the other way around) that are independent and indifferent to our beliefs. I think that’s very valuable, even essential in terms of grappling with existence.

        A master realist may do some of this same thing. There’s the bending ones mind and wrist to depict something as it is. Ultimately, however, I’m much more interested in someone else’s subjective experience, which if conveyed well, broadens my own.

        A realist landscape tells me about the mountains, clouds, trees and so on. A Van Gogh landscape tells me about the individual’s personal struggles, triumphs, ecstasy, failures, and so on.

        My problem with morality is not a problem with being a good person, but with their being a cookie-cutter, reductionist, and to some degree arbitrary rule-book for behavior and expression, which can easily slip into a kind of authoritarianism. We only need think of the morality of the past. It’s people telling other people how they must think, behave, desire, feel, and so on. It’s about controlling other people, and it’s usually a top down control delivered by the powerful onto the less fortunate. In art, it’s a litmus test that imposes its own standards uniformly on artist’s individual expression. Rather than looking at images, it’s stomping on them with labels.

        I often think I should have pursued music. Everyone (just about) loves music, and it’s much harder to be completely stupid about it. An average person can easily name a dozen or more singers or groups they like. But when it comes to living artists, how many can name a half dozen?

        There is no equivalent to the reductionism of Duchamp and similar conceptual stunts in the music world that has any real traction. Nobody would take the sound of a toilet flushing seriously as the greatest achievement of music in the 20th century.

        Must get more coffee. Thanks for tolerating my rants and tangents.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Great points, Eric. I think you should compile a selection of “Best Of” comments you leave everywhere… They could be your fallback posts.

          I’m not sure musicians have it easier in terms of making a living out of their art. It takes far more attention and effort to listen to a song or a whole album, as opposed to seeing a few samples online of an artist’s work. But the engagement is different too – the duration of a song makes you connect more with the musician than seeing a passing image for 1 second in your feed… or taking a quick selfie in a museum. We also associate music with memories. Hmm, OK, maybe you should pursue music too!

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Just a quick note. I’m not really talking about making a living at all. I think musicians who don’t sell out probably have an abysmal chance of significant mainstream success, with very few exceptions. I’m just addressing that it’s much harder for music criticisms to be over-the-top ridiculous and also be taken very seriously. For example, there are some musical equivalents of 20th century “visual” art. John Cage had a piano sonata where the pianist just sat there. But nobody really argues that it’s the greatest composition of the 20th century like they do with Duchamp’s “Fountain”. You know why? Because nobody is going to sit there and listen to that shit more than once. It’s just excruciatingly boring.

            Conceptual music doesn’t work unless it sounds really good and interesting. You can’t get away with saying it’s about the idea, because nobody is going to put that on their play list. People actually listen to music on a regular basis, so nothing is going to really succeed if it’s pure bullshit or is relying almost entirely on political posturing. But in the art world, you don’t need to spend any time with the work. Art becomes a conversation piece.

            Music is closer to cuisine. Nobody is going to eat food because it is conceptual or making a political point. We aren’t going to say that someone who served a roll of toilet paper was the greatest chef of the 20th century because nobody is going to eat it.

            For these reasons, music can’t get away with sheerly arbitrary bullshit, and must aspire to being listenable, and more than once. Hence it is much more successful.

            Liked by 1 person

  3. You missed what I think is an overt sexual connotation in the painting, but not one I object to. Look at the large leaf on the left that resembles a large hand coming towards the figure or even grasping the top of the balustrade. I find that suggestive of sexual desire and maybe frustration in that the girl is not within reach, both physically and metaphorically. But I could be reading too much into it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh wow, yeah. It clearly resembles a hand, thanks for pointing that out. I thought the vegetation as a whole suggested an elusive danger, but that leaf-hand is extremely specific. Since the gaze is directed towards the sunlit leaf, I overlooked the danger lurking in the shadows. I’ve also had trouble seeing this painting as sexual – not least because the girl looks as young as 14, though she could be 18 too.

      Like

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