Edward Sheffield Bartholomew (American, 18221858)
Marble; 29 3/4 x 20 3/8 in. (75.6 x 51.8 cm)
Purchase, Morris K. Jesup Fund, and Gift of William Nelson, by exchange, 1996 (1996.74)
According to contemporaneous reports, Blind Homer Led by the Genius of Poetry was Bartholomew's first major production after he arrived in Rome in 1851. His earliest extant Italian effort, it demonstrates that his technical powers in relief sculpture and his appreciation of ancient art were already well developed while working in the United States. Blind Homer is a stylistic pastiche, drawing its inspiration from both the classical past and the first half of the nineteenth century. This relief and the sculptor's others with arched upper edges bear a compositional resemblance to Greek grave stelae. The figure of Homer owes a debt to Hellenistic "old derelict" sculptures, portrayals of wrinkled and stooped elderly figures such as the Old Fisherman (a copy after the original of ca. 200 A.D. is in the Palazzo dei Conservatori in Rome). Homer's head resembles ancient antecedents that portray the poet with curling hair restrained by a fillet, a full beard, sunken cheeks, and vacant, unincised eyes suggesting his blindness. Bartholomew's figure of the Genius of Poetry is entirely without precedent and is probably based on a live model. Her proportions are stocky with too-short legs and a long right arm. There has been confusion over both the gender and identity of this figure, who has been called Homer's daughter.
The sculpture's subject matter has plausible autobiographical resonances in its linking of artistic genius and physical affliction. Lame from smallpox, Bartholomew may have been insinuating that on the dawn of his tenure in Rome, he could overcome his handicap and achieve artistic renown, like Homer, who had achieved greatness in spite of his blindness. This work was a watershed in Bartholomew's all-too-brief career, for he died in 1858 at age thirty-six.