Auguste Charles Mengin
Auguste Mengin, born in Paris in 1833, was not an overly prolific painter. His most famous work, Sappho, today hangs in the Manchester Art Gallery.
Sappho, one of the most famous women of antiquity, was born on the Isle of Lesbos in about 630 B.C.:
[Sappho is] one of the great Greek lyrists and few known female poets of the ancient world . . . She was an aristocrat who married a prosperous merchant, and she had a daughter named Cleis. Her wealth afforded her with the opportunity to live her life as she chose, and she chose to spend it studying the arts on the isle of Lesbos.
In the seventh century BC, Lesbos was a cultural center. Sappho spent most her time on the island, though she also traveled widely throughout Greece. She was exiled for a time because of political activities in her family, and she spent this time in Sicily. By this time she was known as a poet, and the residents of Syracuse were so honored by her visit that they erected a statue to her.
Sappho was called a lyrist because, as was the custom of the time, she wrote her poems to be performed with the accompaniment of a lyre. Sappho composed her own music and refined the prevailing lyric meter to a point that it is now known as sapphic meter. She innovated lyric poetry both in technique and style, becoming part of a new wave of Greek lyrists who moved from writing poetry from the point of view of gods and muses to the personal vantage point of the individual. She was one of the first poets to write from the first person, describing love and loss as it affected her personally.
Her style was sensual and melodic; primarily songs of love, yearning, and reflection. Most commonly the target of her affections was female, often one of the many women sent to her for education in the arts. She nurtured these women, wrote poems of love and adoration to them, and when they eventually left the island to be married, she composed their wedding songs. That Sappho's poetry was not condemned in her time for its homoerotic content (though it was disparaged by scholars in later centuries) suggests that perhaps love between women was not persecuted then as it has been in more recent times. Especially in the last century, Sappho has become so synonymous with woman-love that two of the most popular words to describe female homosexuality--lesbian and sapphic have derived from her.
How well was Sappho honored in ancient times? Plato elevated her from the status of great lyric poet to one of the muses. Upon hearing one of her songs, Solon, an Athenian ruler, lawyer, and a poet himself, asked that he be taught the song "Because I want to learn it and die."
In more modern times, many poets have been inspired by her works. Michael Field, Pierre Louys, Renée Vivien, Marie-Madeleine, Amy Lowell, and H.D. all cited Sappho as a strong influence on their work.
Given the fame that her work has enjoyed, it is somewhat surprising to learn that only one of Sappho's poems is available in its entirety--all of the rest exist as fragments of her original work. At one time, there were perhaps nine complete volumes of her poetry, but over the centuries, from neglect, natural disasters, and possibly some censorship by close-minded scholars, her work was lost. Late in the 19th century, however, manuscripts dating back to the eighth century AD were discovered in the Nile Valley, and some of these manuscripts proved to contained Sappho's work. Excavations that followed in ancient Egyptian refuse heaps unearthed a quantity of papyruses from the first century BC to the 10th century AD. Here, strips of papyrus--some containing her poetry--were found in number. These strips had been used to wrap mummies, stuff sacred animals, and wrap coffins. The work to piece these together and identify them has continued into the twentieth century. . . .
Below is one of the snippets of Sappho's prose that has come down to us.
Come back to me, Gongyla, here tonight,
You, my rose, with your Lydian lyre.
There hovers forever around you delight:
A beauty desired.
Even your garment plunders my eyes.
I am enchanted: I who once
Complained to the Cyprus-born goddess,
Whom I now beseech
Never to let this lose me grace
But rather bring you back to me:
Amongst all mortal women the one
I most wish to see.