O Skull


John William Waterhouse, The Crystal Ball (1902)

We who are the stymied ones
lose our impulses, shriek amorphously
in our solitariness. O skull,
is death tragic, you tell me,
or a release? Is it deadly dull?

We, the monumental selves,
diminished by our mortal wound,
assay our fortunes flowing
like waves, full of dissent
much like dysentery.

Robed in red, crystal gazing woman
tried to read the signs
practicing witchcraft. I thought
to ask her a steep question.
Alas, she was tight-lipped.

Prompt: Today’s ekphrastic prompt is brought to you by this painting by John William Waterhouse. It had been hanging in the dining room at Glenborrodale Castle, Highland and was sold with the castle in 1952-3. The new owner hated the skull so had it doctored, having it covered by curtains. Subsequently an X-ray by art detectives revealed the skull. Luckily the original surface was still protected by varnish and the addition removed safely.

Echo Talks To Herself


John William Waterhouse, Echo and Narcissus (1903)

He’s warbling to himself.
Stranger to me, and always,
whiskey unto himself.
I remained virginal.

My nerves are jangling.
He doesn’t want a wife.
What verve, as if I could climb
the stairwell, into him.

A narcissus grew where he left.


Prompt: This painting  of classical mythology is by an English painter, John William Waterhouse. It is one of many works depicting women in Greek mythology and Arthurian legend. His work embraced the pre-Raphaelite style of painting. Narcissus had rejected the nymph, Echo, causing her to waste away.  Nemesis, the goddess, heard her prayers and caused Narcissus to fall in love with his own reflection.

Tessa, We’re North of River Oise


Camille Pissarro, The Côte des Bœufs at L’Hermitage (1877)

Away in these woods we’re shrouded
in trees. You’d think there’s nothing
uproarious about being there but
you would be wrong. Nature being
seemingly disordered as a matrix
but again you would be wrong.

What are we here to appease?
Something trite like walking out
for groceries and detergent? Ferreting
out wild mushrooms? Your guess would
be as good as mine. Whatever it was
there’s a touching innocence to it.

Wherever we are the days would be
sluggish sometimes. Like this one.
When night came you’d see the planets
and glittering stars and you’d be
somehow appeased. You’d pucker up to
a capering lover too, dear reader.

Prompt: Camille Pissarro, a Dutch-French painter, painted the rolling hills of the close-by neighbourhood of L’Hermitage when he stayed at Pontoise. The Côte des Bœufs (‘cattle ridge’) is a steep hill face just north of the River Oise. As an Impressionist, he often painted plein air and at this location he had painted scenes on five occasions in three different decades. He had shown his work at all eight Paris Impressionist exhibitions, from 1874 to 1886. This painting hung in his bedroom for many years. The artist, Walter Sickert, had said of it: “But the charm of a picture like this lies chiefly in its immense and indefatigable laboriousness, in labour so cunning, so swift and so patient, that the more it is piled up, the greater the clarity and simplicity of the result.”


Childe Hassam, April: (The Green Gown), 1920


Ode To Moss

Green and burgeoning, I leaned
toward the lichens and moss
against the cascade of leaves.
Crow nowhere in sight. My belly
full of butterflies. Ripples
clutching like a newborn.

When my boy was still sucking
a pacifier, I was writing
a paper and preggers and did
not imagine the pleasure it
would give, juggling like this;
all growth, stoney moss.


Prompt: Art scholars believed that Childe Hassam, an American Impressionist painter,  intended this painting as a portrayal of his mother, Rosa Hathorne Hassam, during her pregnancy. She would have been in her third month of pregnancy with her artist son born on October 17, 1859. Hassam had moved to France to study figure drawing and painting at the prestigous Academie Julian and was inspired by French Impressionist paintings he saw at exhibitions. He had taken over Renoir’s studio and found some oil sketches left behind and “looked at these experiments in pure color and saw it was what I was trying to do myself.” In the 1890s, his technique evolved toward Impressionism.


Tessa, Wax Figures At The Balcony


Eduoard Manet, The Balcony (1868)

No rambunctiousness there.
They stood as wax figures, a flaneur
with a striking blue tie, a girl with
a dimunitive air, a green parasol
matching balustrade and shuttered doors
(the dominance of green),
Berthe Morisot with big lucid eyes
and a brown fan, both women in white,
a boy’s faint outline–four figures
recalling Goya’s painting.

There’s a pot of blue hydrangeas
and the dog with a ball completing
bourgeois fashionableness.
They’re all stiff and formal,
ceremonial on a Parisian balcony
watching the world go by, too disconnected
from each other, a mutual take on leisure
in a painting bobbing with a meaning
like subjective consciousness
and so much green and black.

Prompt: Manet’s painting was partly inspired by Francisco Goya’s The Majas at the balcony (ca. 1800–1810)–Goya had an influence on his work.  The three figures are Manet’s friends, artist Berthe Morisot, violinist Fanny Claus, close friend of Manet’s wife Suzanne Leenhoff,  and landscape painter and Jury member of the Salon des Artistes Francais Jean Baptiste Antoine Guillemet. Manet had made a preparatory painting, The Portrait of Mademoiselle Claus, which had Fanny Claus sitting on the stool where Berthe sat in this painting. Manet’s painting was considered iconoclastic and scorned when it was first exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1869.

Tessa, Looking At Mother’s Beauty


Berthe Morisot, Lady At Her Toilette (1875)

A woman unpinned hair high
and stately at a mirror
so infused ethereal colors
in amorphous blue and gray
softened by a bare shoulder
in a drop of sleeve in white
dress emitting radiance
in the pearlized air.

Soon hair would fall about
her face and my father would be
dreaming, imagining this as
a paean to mother’s beauty
delicate as the porcelain
figures gracing dressing table
and the jewelry hidden within
drawers that slid out.

I, the daughter, saw that
beginning in the photographs
early in their marriage–the pink
satin of bedsheets, the embroidered
pillows–then the black crop of
hair on my infant head, and mother
beside in a nightgown wrapped
in a pre-eternal glow.

Prompt: This painting by Berthe Morisot belongs to a popular genre depicting women sitting at their dressing table, or toilette which is the French term which makes me think of perfume (don’t ask me why). It seems related to the voyeuristic genre of paintings of nude ladies bathing or drying themselves. I read a critical passage which explained that in this genre, the mirror would reflect the woman’s image but in Berthe’s painting this expectation is subverted. There is no reflection of the woman. Instead the mirror reflected the cosmetic container and powder puff on her dresser and some flowers. I like that Berthe’s work is subtly subversive. I also fell in love with the colors and impressionistic brushstrokes. Berthe has been called the “most impressionistic of the Impressionists.” This painting had received high critical acclaim.

Tessa, The Plight Of A Married Woman


Berthe Morisot, The Mother and Sister of the Artist (1869/1870)

This would be a sanctuary
and we would not have finished
our peregrinations through
the book. Mother read in
a black dress and my sister
was heavy with child.

She had keenly spoken out.
Married, she could not paint.
Domesticity and childbearing
dwindled her energy, she so
often wanted a breathing spot.
Her spirit’s quashed within.

Prompt: Berthe’s sister, Edma Pontillon, visited with the family in the winter of 1869–1870 when she was expecting her first child. Her sister had moved away after marriage. The sisters were art students and used to paint alongside. Edma had lamented to her sister about withdrawing from painting. That is why Berthe painted Edma’s sad countenance, I suppose. Her expression is exquisitely drawn. Berthe had asked for her brother-in-law, Eduoard Manet’s opinion on this painting and he took the liberty to add his brushstrokes to the black dress and face of the mother. Berthe was none too pleased about it.

Tessa, A Mother’s Painting


Berthe Morisot, Under The Orange Tree (1889)

In the garden she sat,
the sun devout, under the pale oranges
beside the green parrot Harriet
squawking who goes there.
Why, it’s only mother
with her paints and brushes
rustling up the leaves.

Prompt: Berthe Morisot painted her daughter in the garden of the family’s winter home in Nice. She married the brother of Edouard Manet in 1874 and gave birth to her daughter Julie in 1878, her only child. She had success early, at the age of 23, when two landscape paintings were accepted by The Salon in 1864. From 1874 she chose to exhibit with the Impressionists. Her daughter published her memoir, Growing Up with the Impressionists: The Diary of Julie Manet, in 1987.

Tessa, Waiting In A Cafe, Paris, 1877


Edouard Manet, The Plum (1877)

She’s called to sing a tune
but now she’s hoarse, in need of
a cigarette and plum brandy.
Resting face on right hand,
wearing a black hat, still by
herself, in some cafe.

Even her pink dress she wore as
a suit of armor, with a bowed
collar. Waiting for a spoon.
Or a paramour. Some ally who’d
hear her out, a shambling
story, a mist of triumph.


Prompt: Here’s a young working class woman looking pensive, in a cafe. The woman who modelled this for Manet is actress Ellen Andree,  who was also the model for L’Absinthe, in which she also sat in a cafe with a green drink, in Edgar Degas’ 1876 painting. And voila, she was the model in Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party (1881), where she held a glass at a luncheon table. In all these paintings, she is the picture of human isolation, you guys. There is something obsessive about this trope.

Tessa, A Mother’s Song


Mary Cassatt, The Child’s Bath (1893)

I’d put a crucifix on love, my love
pinned in blood, sticky heat–
blissed out, erotic-ecstatic

We’re pudgy as puddles.
Like soap sliding into basin
bubbly sweet, washing the dirt off;
smelling like peach.

Oh what Eureka as
you played with the angels
pulling a wagon, in a breath
wreathed in breast.

Prompt: This is one from Mary Cassatt’s maternity series. It conveys the intimacy and trust between mother and child, does it not? Mothering is a very physical experience. It’s like physicality multiplied many times because it is tied to rituals of feeding and washing–bathing the child, breast-feeding, diapering etc etc. It’s pretty ineffable an experience. The painting is enhanced by the decorative elements which were influenced by Japanese woodblocks, which the artist had seen at the Beaux-Arts Academy in Paris in 1890. The basin appears to be aesthetically paired with the vase in the composition.