The story of Pygmalion first appeared in a Hellenistic text – Philostephanus’ history of Cyprus. It was retold in Metamorphoses, an 8 AD Latin narrative poem by the Roman poet Ovid, composed of 11,995 lines and 15 books.
In Ovid’s account, Pygmalion is a king and sculptor who falls in love with an object of his own creation: an ivory statue of a woman. To satiate his desire, Aphrodite, the goddess of love, brings the statue to life. Free from her ivory prison, this woman, named Galatea, returns Pygmalion’s love, and they marry. Homer described the moment in Book XVIII of The Iliad: “Bright Galatea quits her pearly bed”.
In the late 19th century, this myth provided the inspiration for the French painter and sculptor, Jean-Léon Gérôme, one of the greatest French academic painters of the 19th century. He was a technical maestro who had a meticulous attention to detail, creating epic, theatrical scenes from antiquity and history. Between 1890 and 1892, Gérôme painted and sculpted works inspired by Pygmalion and Galatea. In each version, he chose to depict the moment of transformation -when the inanimate sculpture sprang into life.
Several different versions of the moment were painted, each presenting the same scene from a different angle, as though the sculpture was being viewed in the round. These are also depicted in the backgrounds of Gérôme’s self-portraits The Artist and His Model and Working in Marble.
The focal point in Gérôme’s masterpiece is the body of Galatea. Her transformation is visible: her lower legs are bright white, as they remain as stone. Her upper legs and torso have already transformed, betrayed by the pinkish hue of flesh. It is a surreal vision: the worlds of classical mythology and antiquity merge with Gérôme’s own world – that of the artist.
Galatea’s body twists in a serpentine form, her hands tenderly feeling for those of Pygmalion, whose rough skin and rugged form contrasts with the delicacy of the female depiction. The stark, sensuous nudity of Galatea is also emphasised by the contrasting portrayal of Pygmalion, whose body is concealed by clothing and shadow.
A vision of drama and meaning
The drama of this moment is heightened by some clever visual devices. By placing Galatea’s pearly white body high on a pedestal, Gérôme replicates the effect of the spotlight in a theatre or cabaret. Once more, to the right of the figures are two faces, similar to classical masks from antiquity used to communicate a tragic or comedic performance. A putti in a puff of clouds hovers beside the couple, ready to release his bow of love and seal their passions forever. Finally, Pygmalion’s hammer lies abandoned in the foreground, suggesting moments before, he threw it aside in a moment of passion.
Although Galatea’s body is certainly objectified, she also takes a more domineering stance. She stands high on the pedestal, as Pygmalion looks up from the ground with arms open, in a submissive position. Galatea’s overt nudity may also have reflected changes in 1890s culture in France with the opening of the infamous Moulin Rouge and the familiarity of cabaret in the workforce in general. Gérôme’s work is an indication of contemporary shifts in night-life culture and a growing awareness of women’s rights in France.
The painting, simply titled Pygmalion and Galatea, is 35 x 27 in. (88.9 x 68.6 cm), and painted with oil on canvas. It is now housed in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in Gallery 800. In this room is a collection of bronzes, marbles, terracottas, and plasters by Auguste Rodin. The walls are adorned by the paintings which, according to The Met, “provide a glimpse into the creative forces that shattered conventions and invigorated individual expression across Europe during Rodin’s lifetime”. The images are monumental scenes, which reimagine traditional subjects from history, religion, and myth. Underlying themes include the dynamism of nature, the vitality of the body and the world of the imagination. Gérôme’s painting of Pygmalion and Galatea is no exception.