13 December 2016

A Burro, A Donkey

Burro is the Spanish word for donkey and when the American artist Frederic Edwin Church visited Colombia in 1853, he named this watercolor of a donkey, Burro.   The little animals have been domestic servants and, for children, special domestic companions.  When I was a child I was  often taken aback by the vigor and unpredictability of dogs but had no hesitation in stroking a burro or feeding it a carrot.  And burros come to mind at this time of year, their gentleness and dignity a remembered element of the Christmas story.  Among  world religions, Christianity gives  the donkey a special place; it was on a donkey that Jesus entered Jerusalem, (in  Robert Bresson's 1966 film Au Hasard Balthasar the relationship between the young girl Marie and the donkey Balthasar is a parable of the Christ story, from birth to death..)
My first encounter with a donkey in literature was Dapple, the donkey in Cervantes' Don Quixote.  Dapple is a loyal, peaceful, humble companion to humans who admire their virtues, even as they fail to emulate these in themselves.  Dapple's owner, Sancho Panza, loves the animal dearly, a love that Cervantes must have shared because Dapple is the most memorable character in the book after Sancho and Don Quixote, in spite of having a non-speaking part.   At a time when we think of animal farming in terms of food stuffs, it is good to remember that donkeys were among the most common domestic animals, and not only in Spain in the 16th century.

Back to Church and his burro now.   The career of Frederic Edwin Church (1900-1826) fits our contemporary concerns about the  relationship  between aesthetics and money somewhat uneasily.    Church's interest in traveling to the tropics came from his reading of the naturalist Alexander von Homboldt, whose descriptions of 'exotic' landscapes contained the explicit call for artists to come paint "the living image of manifold  beauty and grandeur in (its) humid mountain valleys..."   The English aesthete John Ruskin had also called for art to join in "the teaching of nature" in a heroic way.   Church's most famous painting Heart of the Andes (1859) did just that.  It was commissioned by  wealthy businessman Cyrus Field,  a founder of the Atlantic Telegraph Company which laid the first undersea cable.   Field,  a man with a financial interest in stimulating public appetite for faraway places was well-matched with the equally ambitious Church.
From its first exhibition in New York City, Heart of the Andes caused a popular sensation  as people waited in line for hours to pay admission for the chance to view a giant (five feet high by ten feet wide) landscape that was largely imaginary although constructed from realistic bits of South American scenery.  Church was a wealthy man himself but he had few qualms about making more money or its effects on his work.  I just happen to find more charm in his realistic drawing of this little burro, made on his first trip to South America.

To read my translation of Jacques Prevert's poem "The Little Donkey" go here.

Frederic Edwin Church - A Donkey - Barranquilla Colombia,  May 1853, Cooper-Hewitt Museum, NYC.


Hels said...

Donkeys are usually seen as overworked, trustworthy animals that never complain or fight back. On the downside, they are not handsome like a horse and they have a silly braying sound.

Unfortunately for the donkey, in Australia (where voting is compulsory) a person who is too stupid to vote intelligently might simply number all the candidates down the page, regardless of their policies. This is donkey voting, not a good thing :(

Jane said...

Hels, thanks for your comment. That is certainly how many people view donkeys. In Church's picture I see the gentleness and dignity that I have experienced with feelow creatures of ours.