Day 79 – Pygmalion

François Boucher, Pygmalion and Galatea, 1767, The Hermitage, St Petersburg.

The day before yesterday I was talking about a self portrait by Sofonisba Anguissola seeming to come alive (Picture Of The Day 77), and referred to the myth of Pygmalion – so what better than to explore that idea a little further today. The origins of the story have been lost, and the nature of even Ovid’s version has been confused by George Bernard Shaw, whose eponymous play has almost nothing to do with the original – apart from being concerned with one man’s creation of his ideal, in which he falls in love. However, Shaw believed that the creation could not fall in love with its own creator, and in the play Pygmalion Henry Higgins does not get the girl. However, in My Fair Lady, musical theatre – and presumably the producer’s big bucks – persuaded him he was wrong. And indeed, for Ovid the tale of Pygmalion is an anomaly – it is one of the very few Metamorphoses which has a happy ending.

I’ve chosen this painting by François Boucher because, to be honest, there aren’t a great number to choose from, and some of the available examples have inappropriate implications. But also, it is undoubtedly the best example, and takes the idea of art coming to life just that one step further. It’s in The Hermitage in Moscow, but I’ve never seen it – there’s just too much to look at. And to think there would have been more! In the 1930s when the Soviet powers were more than usually strapped for cash, after the museum had closed its doors of an evening, the curators would sometimes be required to stay behind to rehang the paintings, in order to cover the gaps on the walls created by the sale of some of the best works, usually to the United States. For years no one in Russia found out the truth. Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation (POTD 76) was one of them. I’ve only just found that out from Irina Polevaya, a fantastic guide in St Petersburg: if you’re ever going, let me know and I’ll send you her details! 

One of the great joys of doing POTD, to be honest, is finding myself looking at paintings I’ve never seen and can’t find any information about – so we’re left with the looking, which is what this is all about. I know this was painted in 1767, so is a late work – Boucher was 64 and died three years later – but apart from that, I don’t know who it was painted for or where it was supposed to hang… which would be useful as it might explain some of the painting’s peculiarities. Is it a straightforward illustration of Ovid’s tale? Well, let’s have a look.

We see Pygmalion, the sculptor, in his studio, leaning on a table looking up at Galatea, his creation (Ovid doesn’t name her, by the way – the name came later). The scene is framed by sculptures at far left and right. Running along the bottom, in between us and Pygmalion, is a long work bench, with a portfolio, papers and a portrait bust at one end, and a mallet and material in the middle. There is also a monumental column running up the left hand side of the painting.  There are various cherubs and nymphs in attendance, and a chariot in the top left-hand corner, in front of which two doves are billing and cooing.

The story of Pygmalion is one of the tales sung by Orpheus after he has lost his beloved Eurydice – at which point he renounces the love of women, and sings of the loves of the gods for boys… Again, Pygmalion is unusual here, apart from the fact that he too has renounced the love of women. According to Ovid (or Orpheus, as he’s the one who is telling this story) Pygmalion came from Venus’s island of Cyprus, where the women, the Propoetides, had denied the goddess her status and became the first to prostitute themselves. Venus punished them by turning them into stone (I can see an ironic reversal on the horizon), and Pygmalion turned away from women because of their immorality, preferring to live as a bachelor, and carry on carving. Here’s an extract from a contemporary translation, which you can find on the Poetry in Translation website – you need to look for Book 10:

But, with wonderful skill, he carved a figure, brilliantly, out of snow-white ivory, no mortal woman, and fell in love with his own creation. The features are those of a real girl, who, you might think, lived, and wished to move, if modesty did not forbid it. 

Yes, he carved himself a sculpture, and fell in love with it. It is more beautifully told, if less accurately translated, in an 18th Century version, which, as the title page asserts, was ‘Translated by Sir Samuel Garth, John Dryden, et al’ – and you can find a transcript of that too, on the Internet Classics Archive – again, it’s Book 10, and this quotation overlaps with the last:

Pleas'd with his idol, he commends, admires, 
Adores; and last, the thing ador'd, desires. 
A very virgin in her face was seen, 
And had she mov'd, a living maid had been: 
One wou'd have thought she cou'd have stirr'd, but strove 
With modesty, and was asham'd to move. 
Art hid with art, so well perform'd the cheat, 
It caught the carver with his own deceit: 
He knows 'tis madness, yet he must adore, 
And still the more he knows it, loves the more: 
The flesh, or what so seems, he touches oft, 
Which feels so smooth, that he believes it soft. 

The phrase which really catches my eye here, which is not quite, I suspect, in the original, but captures so well what interests me about this story and its relevance to the power of art, is, ‘so well perform’d the cheat/It caught the carver with his own deceit’. Basically, he made such a perfect sculpture that he believed it was real – and he goes on to treat it as though it is, even though he knows it isn’t – like an audience member in the theatre, he has suspended his own belief. Soon after, at the Festival of Venus, he beseeches the goddess to give him – well, he would have asked to make the sculpture truly his, but asks instead for a woman who is just like the sculpture. When he gets back home, he goes to kiss his girl, his statue, as he often has before, imagining that he feels her soft and warm – and he feels her soft and warm. This time, she really is – and as she awakes, she sees him – and they live happily ever after! Venus even attends the wedding, and they have a son, named Paphos, after whom the city is named. 

It’s fascinating to see this transformation in Boucher’s painting. Pygmalion, leaning on his work bench, looks up at Galatea in awe, his hands stretched out as if he wants to touch, and yet he is not touching. This is the story re-imagined, not quite as Ovid tells it. To the left of his left hand we see a marble tree trunk, that very common accessory used to support the weight of marble sculptures, as marble legs can not bear a marble torso on their own. Carved from the same block is a marble cherub, who grasps Galatea’s drapery – but flying above him is a living double, painted in flesh tones with blonde hair, and another living cherub flies in behind. The feet, the shins and even the knees of Galatea look like stone – but how about the thighs, and stomach? Is that colour? Or is that imagination? The drapery on the left of the detail above is surely not stone… However, if we look at a different detail, we get a different idea of what is going on. 

The chariot in the top left belongs to Venus, and hers the doves that pull it (POTD 32). Clouds flow into the room to tell us this is a vision, covering some of the grandiose architecture, which, like the monumental column on the far left of the painting are part of the sculptor’s craft – although the work of stonemasons rather than artists, perhaps. Two cherubs ride the crest of the wave of cloud, one playing, one bearing a flaming torch aloft, next to another dove. Why the torch? Well, I’m sure I’ve said this before, but in the words of the poet, ‘Come on baby, light my fire’ – a song about many things, none of which is central heating. This torch will light the flames of passion – in Pygmalion already lit.  And of course, the ‘nymph’ attending to Galatea is none other than Venus herself, almost cradling the sculpture’s arm, and making it flesh, as if she is sculpting a real person out of marble. Galatea’s stretching left hand points, a cherub points back at the miracle of marble turned flesh, and a rococo reference to Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam is born: Adam was made out of clay, and Galatea from marble. She lives, she looks at Venus, she is surprised – and her clothing is definitely in colour. From this detail we have no doubt: this is a woman.

I am, however, intrigued by this workbench stretching the full width of the bottom of the painting. Pygmalion is the other side of it, almost as if he is trapped there, cut off from us. The paraphernalia of the sculptors studio is placed upon it – propped up props to remind us where we are – and yet it could almost be like the frame of a painting. It is as if, rather than the sculpture coming to life, the sculptor has become art – he has left our world and entered fully into the world of his own imagination. 

And if we step away again, there is an unnerving feeling that nothing he sees is real – the subtle variation in tone between Galatea as a sculpture and as a living woman is echoed in the feminine pallor of Venus, in the thinly painted, only-just-sketched cherubs and the pale pellucid sky. Is it really a sculpture being brought to life, or is it a painting of a sculpture being brought to life that he is looking at? He is real – undoubtedly solid, richly coloured, worldly, rugged, his weight leaning on that bench – but everything else is evanescent. Clearly we are looking at a painting, if only because it is a part of Boucher’s painting – and Boucher seems to say that, if we believe a sculpture could come to life, how much easier is it to believe a painting, how much more real is it?

Shakespeare used the story of Pygmalion, without ever saying what it was. In The Winter’s Tale the wronged Hermione is said to have died, but a sculpture of her is revered. It is a polychrome sculpture, painted by ‘…that rare Italian master, Julio Romano’ – the only artist Shakespeare ever mentions by name (POTD 44). Paulina takes Leontes to see the sculpture of his late wife, once he has truly repented of his wrongs, and he is overawed. She wants take him away, saying,

No longer shall you gaze on't, lest your fancy
May think anon it moves.

…and then, as if were not enough that the sculpture might move,

I'll draw the curtain:
My lord's almost so far transported that
He'll think anon it lives.

Eventually she confesses that, through dark arts, she can make it move, and when he says she should, Paulina’s request is simple

It is required
You do awake your faith. 

Shakespeare understood better than any other author, I think, the power of art – and The Winter’s Tale is the play in which he plays constantly with what is seen. Looking at paintings – and sculptures – is simple. Just trust your eyes. Believe what you see. It is required you do awake your faith.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

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