Of all the themes that an artist might tackle, sleep has always been one of my favorites. It’s highly versatile, as it can allude to deep, physical contentment, sexuality, escapism or the mystery of the subconscious. For me, it’s always been more about its physicality, the rejuvenating pleasure one might derive from it and the sweet relief of shutting down the chatter of the mind – if only for a brief amount of time.
In Siesta, French artist Pierre Bonnard depicted his main model and lifelong partner Marthe Boursin, lounging nude on a bed, during a pleasurable, afternoon nap. It is one of many paintings of Boursin – by some estimates, 384 artworks include the likeness of her – who is often portrayed naked and with a nonchalant youthfulness. Perhaps this goes back to how the couple met. Initially, Marthe lied about her identity and even her age, assuming a different last name (Marthe de Méligny) and claiming she was only 16 years old, when in fact she was 24, two years Bonnard’s junior. I assume that’s one of the perks of being petite – one gets a few extra years of youth.
So while Marthe was already 31 in this painting, she could easily pass as a 16-year old… yet again. The cluttered setup of her bedroom, with the messy bed and table next to her, and the clothes discarded on the floor, as well as the highly decorated walls with tapestry and wallpaper, create a detailed and chaotic cocoon around the curvature of her body, where our eyes rest. Marthe’s lush, sleeping pose was inspired by an ancient Greek marble sculpture called Sleeping Hermaphroditos. There is something very organic and fluid in the way she was rendered, like a feline stretching and purring. On the floor, a small, white dog is napping too, echoing the pleasurable sentiment.
The perspective is tilted, to give us a better, aerial view – if the laws of gravity applied, her body would tumble down. This artistic license, in turn, captures the contentment of Marthe’s siesta, suspended in time and space.
With the high temperatures and the increasingly unbearable, hot summer nights, even napping vicariously through a painting like this will do.