Apprenticeship, Oil with China Bristle Brush: “Landscape avec des Moutons” #5

(Rosa Bonheur, Rue des Tournelles, Paris 1836) 

My easel billeted
between stove and painting chest,
Most mornings Papa teaches
at an atelier for young ladies,
later portrait sittings–a  Portuguese
factory owner, Senhor Micas,
begged, please paint his  Nanette
who won’t live to be thirteen.

In one corner in a stanchion, the ewe
little ‘Dodore carries up
six flights each day, then
off to the schoolthat expelled me.
My only other visitor a dull
monochromatic sky frowning through
the open window.

From street noise I conjure 
piano chords, the Mozart  Mere played
with toy-sized hands. She pauses, fingers
my landscape’s foreground as I paint
grass that sings her  lullabies;  
each blade, a brief upward stroke
to heaven where you are, Maman.

Today’s instructions:
Far left, a cresting rivulet; center left, three 
Lacaune with lambs;
on the right,  old oaks shade
so here grass  a hue
darker than the Prussian sky.
Each mouton’s white locks spiral back
in time, the feel  of fleece, Maman’s hair.
Each ewe’s eyes contented by
a memory that does not fade: You
who were also Papa’s drawing student.

Sky palette.  Green palette.  Brushes washed
at day’s end with the tenderness
you used bathing baby Juju.
Painting grass soothes me;
bellies of  resting sheep warm
the ground where you were buried
in a potter’s field unmarked; your flesh
indistinguishable as a strand of  wind .
Today I lay you to rest here, Mere,
so that your remains  nourish
my sheepscape, a place on earth to bring
bouquets of everlasting and bluebells
the color of your  sighs.

This day’s canvas–remuneration
for your sons’ school fees–finished, signed
as directed, bottom right:
RB, Raymond Bonheur.


Oil-on-canvas painting by French artist Rosa Bonheur (1822–1899)

Jana Harris

Jana Harris teaches creative writing at the University of Washington and at the Writer’s Workshop in Seattle. She is editor and founder of Switched-on Gutenberg. Her most recent publications are You Haven’t Asked About My Wedding or What I Wore; Poems of Courtship on the American Frontier (University of Alaska Press) and the memoir, Horses Never Lie About Love (Simon & Schuster). Other poetry books include Oh How Can I Keep on Singing, Voices of Pioneer Women (Ontario); The Dust of Everyday Life, An Epic Poem of the Northwest (Sasquatch); and We Never Speak of It, Idaho-Wyoming Poems 1889-90 (Ontario ) all are available online from Open Road Press as are her two novels, Alaska (Harper & Row) and The Pearl of Ruby City (St. Martin’s). She lives with her husband on a farm in the Cascades.