This abstract painting, by the French artist Eugène Delacroix (c. 1798-1863), was titled Hésiode Et La Muse (or Hesiod and the Muse). As the self-descriptive label of the piece divulges, the artwork features the famous ancient Greek poet, Hesiod (c. 8th century BCE), in a scene with the Muse that inspired him to write his time-enduring poetry. To Hesiod, Muses were much more literal than the so-called muses cited by later artists. The muses of Hesiod, so the ancient poet claimed, were the divine Muses—goddesses of arts, sciences and creativity. He claimed to have met the Muses on Mount Helicon in Boeotia, Greece, where the generous goddesses gave him wisdom about the gods and infused him with a great talent for poetry. Speaking of himself, Hesiod poetically wrote:
“And once they taught Hesiod fine singing, as he tended his lambs below holy Helicon…and they gave me a branch of springing bay to pluck for a staff, a handsome one, and they breathed into me wondrous voice, so that I should celebrate things of the future and things that were aforetime. And they told me to sing of the family of blessed ones who are for ever, and first and last always to sing of themselves” (Theogony, approximately line 29).
Such is the scene that inspired Eugène Delacroix’s painting. In keeping with the ancient poet’s words, a staff or cane seems to have been left against the sleeping shepherd’s legs in the painting. Additionally, the Muse can be seen reaching out toward Hesiod’s face, perhaps to breathe the power of poetry into the poet.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Theogony and Works and Days by Hesiod, translated by M. L. West. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988, 1999, 2008.